On Gold King Mine Spill and Reputation of Ecologists

A few weeks ago, I had a discussion with some guy approximately my age on environmental awareness in today’s world. During our conversation, we began speaking on whether the concerns for ecological well-being of our planet are well-grounded.

Touching upon my favorite topic fueled my ardor, and I began to enthusiastically argue with my interlocutor, who, after proudly proclaiming himself as a staunch supporter of conservative ideology with a sheer disdain for “all that leftist mumbo-jumbo” (among which he reckoned the ideas I was communicating), was counterattacking my arguments just as ardently. Luckily for me, the guy didn’t seem over-zealous to the point where any meaningful discussion splits upon a rock of a blatant narrow-mindedness and being stubborn on principle, and so our conversation carried on to the following point.

Affected area. Animas, San Juan, and Colorado rivers’ basin.

“Look”, he suddenly said, “You’re saying that my assumptions contradict scientific findings. Here, I’m saying that there is no climate change, and you’re arguing that this is groundless, because I can’t prove it. But can scientists prove otherwise?”

“Of course they can”, I replied, “If you wish, I will immediately provide you with at least ten links to various websites with all the latest scientifically-proven data that support my claim.”

“But how can that be of any use to me? I’m no scientist; I don’t understand the language, and I don’t need it to suddenly change my perception on things that I can see clear enough through my own eyes without any help of some bespectacled bigheads. And frankly speaking, I see no reason to trust them, either.”

“And why is that?” I archly remarked.

“Well, who invented nukes, atomic energy, poisonous pesticides, – all those things that now are threatening Earth, according to you? Scientists. And now you’re saying scientists want to persuade me there’s a climate change because there’s too many businesses and industries that produce waste? Sorry, but I don’t believe them. I’ll tell you what I think: environmental scientists puff things up. I won’t be surprised if it turns out that ecologists themselves are causing ecological catastrophes so they have something to research into. Everybody needs to earn a living, y’know.”

I will spare you the rest of our conversation, in which I, filled with righteous anger, was battling against his wrongful logic and twisted perceptions of the science and the world as a whole, until I finally understood that this man can only be persuaded by what he sees “through his own eyes”, i.e., by plenty of good examples of ecologic scientists striving for a better, cleaner, sustainable world. And then I promised myself again to work strenuously in order to increase the presence of environmental science in mass media, because if something can break down the resistance of ignorance, it’s the correct, objective information and knowledge.

Yesterday I was reading about the horrendous ecologic catastrophe of Animas River in Colorado, that happened when an EPA’s (The US Environmental Protection Agency) crew accidentally released three million gallons of toxic waste into the river. What happened was that a team, contracted by the EPA, was investigating a small-scale leak of toxic waters out of abandoned Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado. When trying to add a tap to the tailing pond for the mine, those workers accidentally destroyed the dam holding the pond back and toxic waste gushed out into the Cement Creek, a tributary of Animas River. This river is a primary source of water for many people, who use its waters for irrigating the crops, fishing, even bathing and drinking, as well as for many other living beings in the area. As I was reading all this, I suddenly remembered my conversation with the stubborn environmental science denier.

ducks animas river
Ducks wade through the orange sludge that is now flowing in Animas RIver. Image Alexa Rogals/The Daily Times via AP

Of course, this wasn’t my first thought after learning about this disaster. I immediately thought of the people and nature of the affected area, Cement Creek, Animas River, San Juan River, Colorado River, and many other places in Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico, that now will undoubtedly be affected through the waterways connected to Animas River. I thought of three million gallons of polluted mine waste water, which includes such poisonous elements, as cadmium, arsenic and lead, spilling into a river that was the source of life in the area and now, due to the spill, will most likely turn into a source of withering – the haunting photos of an orange-colored river eloquently illustrated my thoughts. I thought of the people of Navajo Nation, whose emotional testimonies such as the one of Amber Crotty, the delegate of Navajo Nation Council, who called the spill “an assault on Navajo culture and life”, can be understood. I thought of the magnificent Lake Powell, which is a large water reservoir on Colorado River located on the border between Utah and Arizona with the catchment area of 280,586 km2 – the toxic waste is expected to reach the lake today, August 12th.

But then I remembered our fierce discussion with the anti-environmentalist and couldn’t resist but shake my head in dismay.

EPA’s head Gina McCarthy said she is “deeply sorry” for the accident, and even assured the public that the cleanup procedures will take effect fast, while Colorado’s “top health official” declared that Animas River “does not appear to present a health risk” according to preliminary tests. But even if we suppose that the ongoing spill (“toxic water continues to spill at a rate of 500 to 700 gallons a minute”, according to NY Times) is going to be taken under control and cleaned up (despite the fact that its dire consequences for the environment are, most likely, irreversible and cannot be even approximately estimated right now), there is another, very unfortunate, aspect of this disaster.

Animas River turned orange in the wake of the toxic waste spill at Gold King Mine. Photo courtesy: The Associated Press

Undoubtedly, people are going to look for the culprits. Gold King Mine Spill, caused by EPA, is inevitably going to damage the reputation of ecologists and environmental protectors, first of all, among people who are set against environmentalists. For example, my recent interlocutor, who believes in “what he sees through his own eyes” rather than theoretic scientific facts and that “environmentalists have a hand in causing ecologic disasters”, – how can we expect him to look into any objective scientific facts on climate change, for instance, after what he has “seen with his own eyes” through the mass media: a severe toxic waste spill caused by Environmental Protection Agency, the very same body whose duty is to protect the environment? This catastrophe is going to play into the hands of those politicians who try to soil the reputation of environmental science and oppose the passage of any environmental law that comes their way.

In the light of these tragic events, Gina McCarthy’s recent call for attention to climate change looks badly timed, at best.

EPA’s official website, meanwhile, does not have any news on the spill among the main headlines (as of August 12, 2015) except for the small Twitter ticker at the bottom. Right now, optimistic slogans on various projects that are currently featured on the EPA’s website look somewhat scoffing.

It is, of course, absolutely indisputable that the spill was unintentional. However, the questions that are going to rise, – competency of the team contracted by EPA, why the team decided to do what they have done, were there any better solutions – have to be raised in order to prevent this from happening in the future somewhere else. EPA, in my opinion, should address all these questions publicly, and their main website seems to be the best place to do it, because people are going to visit it in their search for the answers. They have to increase presence of the news on the spill on their website, offer a full transparent coverage of the cleanup process, reports on contaminated areas and pollution estimates. Why don’t they address, for example, the following feature by Earthwork‘s Lauren Pagel, who specifically points out “the real culprit of the spill” – old legislation on mining law, that remains unchanged since 1872, which limits the amount of funds to clean up old, dysfunctional mines?

This is a full-blown ecological tragedy, and it is no surprise all eyes are now focused on EPA. Right now, I am afraid, EPA’s reputation is tarnished, and many anti-environmentalists will now use it as a strong trump card.

Meanwhile, the spill is still ongoing.

Aug. 16, 2015

Animas River spill makes Silverton even warier of EPA



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