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Spill in the Animas River ignites passions over EPA’s mission

EPA administrator Gina McCarthy spoke to the media about the contamination of the Animas River on Wednesday at the La Plata County Fairgrounds.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Ever since the Environmental Protection Agency unleashed 3 million gallons of polluted mine wastewater into the Animas River, lawmakers and pundits have used the disaster to propagate their views about the agency.

Some are trying to take advantage of the opportunity to hold the agency accountable. But it’s difficult to see how they’ll be able to parlay the accident at the Gold King Mine toward their primary goal of blocking the Clean Power Plan – the linchpin in the agency’s strategy to fight climate change.

If anything, the incident gives the administration the ability to cite the hazards of mining operations, especially coal-mining operations typically associated with the release of harmful heavy metals such as nickel and lead.

“Now, a drought-stricken area is facing poisonous waters,” said Elizabeth MacDonald on Fox Business Network after asking whether President Barack Obama could leave his vacation to visit the area like he did the Gulf Coast after the 2010 BP oil spill.

Environmentalists have acted quickly to try to guide the conversation back to climate change. On Thursday, the National Wildlife Federation released a report called Wildlife in Hot Water, which calls for support of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan.

“As much as drought across the West is stressing people, it’s even more devastating for fish and wildlife, which can’t plan ahead or get water from faraway places,” said Doug Inkley, NWF senior scientist and lead author of the report. “They need our help.”

On Monday, Republican U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, chairman of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology, sent a letter to EPA administrator Gina McCarthy, asking for a full investigation of the incident. On Tuesday, Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., called for congressional oversight hearings on the issue.

But McCarthy has already accepted responsibility for the spill and committed to investigations by both internal and independent arbiters.

She seems to fully understand that the EPA has nothing to gain from resisting culpability and everything to gain in blunting conservatives’ attacks by accepting responsibility and responding to concerns and by fulfilling her mandate to protect the environment by expediting clean-up efforts.

On Wednesday, members of the Colorado and New Mexico delegations sent a letter to Obama asking him to direct federal resources toward the mine response. In it, they ask for the assessment of other facilities in the upper Animas River Basin.

Locally, within the Animas River Stakeholders Group, co-coordinator Peter Butler said there hasn’t been the consensus needed to advocate designating the area as a Superfund site, which would allow the flow of EPA funds to aid the cleanup of multiple old mining sites along the river. But now he expects people will start to reassess their positions.

“Durango’s kind of woken up a little,” he said. “They haven’t been paying attention; now it’s on everybody’s mind.”

There’s also room for shifting positions on active mines in other parts of the state.

Last month, Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., signed a letter, along with Gardner and Rep. Tipton, R-Cortez, to Secretary Sally Jewell, head of the Department of the Interior, asking her to appeal to a federal court to keep the Colowyo Mine from being shuttered.

The mine is scheduled for closure by order of a federal court, unless the Interior department submits an environmental review by Sept. 6 considering the impact of the facility’s carbon emissions on the environment. The order came after a lawsuit by the environmental group WildEarth Guardians.

Jewell has committed only to completing a new environmental review by the deadline.

According to the EPA, the Colowyo mine had 34 Clean Water Act violations when it was inspected in the years 2004 through 2008.

mbaksh@durangoherald.com. Mariam Baksh is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern with The Durango Herald.

This story has been corrected to reflect that the Colowyo mine had 34 Clean Water Act violations from 2004 through 2008. Tri-State Generation and Transmission did not own the mine at the time of the inspections.

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