Las Vegas Review-Journal: EDITORIAL: Congress Must Hold EPA Accountable For Polluting River System

Posted on Sep 11, 2015

The EPA, like the rest of the federal bureaucracy, exists by a double standard. But the shamelessness of the regulatory state in perpetuating that double standard never ceases to amaze us.

On Aug. 5, an Environmental Protection Agency team triggered the release of at least 3 million gallons of rust-colored sludge from the inactive Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colo. According to EPA testing, concentrations of arsenic, lead and other toxins initially spiked in the area’s river system, measuring (in some locations) hundreds of times higher than recommended for drinking water.

Not wanting to waste a crisis, Democrats and the EPA are trying to spin the blowout — again, caused by EPA contractors — as justification for more federal regulation and the immediate cleanup of similar sites. They argue that abandoned mines are at huge risk of leaking and blowing out toxins into river systems across the West.

The problem is, the EPA itself didn’t heed those risks when it started poking around that mine last month, causing the blowout.

This week, in the first of many expected congressional hearings on the debacle, Republicans on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee rightfully (and thankfully) grilled EPA Assistant Administrator Mathy Stanislaus about the agency’s culpability in the incident and its slow reaction to it. Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, was especially pointed in his critique of the EPA action that caused the spill.

“It seems to me you did not heed the dangers, or you did not act to prevent the spill in an adequate fashion, or the spill would not have occurred,” Rep. Smith said.

It’s worth noting that one of the EPA’s first moves in response to this incident was to withhold records from Congress — where have we seen this before? — and that barely more than a month after the blowout, federal officials announced the hazards created by the blowout had dissipated, allowing treatment plants to start drawing water from rivers again and lifting advisories against fishing, boating and other recreational activities. Nothing to see here!

Navajo Nation leaders and farmers in the area are skeptical that the environment could recover so quickly without any kind of cleanup. Some irrigation systems will remain shut off until the tribe receives the results of its own independent water and sediment testing.

Would the EPA have given the “all clear” signal so quickly if, say, a mining or other private company could be blamed for the blowout? Of course not. So the environment heals itself quickly when the government creates a mess, but is damaged forever when a company does it.

It’s not unreasonable for Congress to demand that the EPA be held to the same standard the agency would hold a business that fouled a river system. Which is to say it should be put through the wringer.