A public agency should be more forthcoming

Animas River post-spillWhen the EPA turned Colorado’s Animas river yellow, Republicans launched an all out offensive. Early this month, workers for the federal watchdog poked a hole in a wall blocking the outflow of effluent from the Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colo.

The online political magazine “The Hill” reported the agency was playing defense as GOP lawmakers attacked it for causing the outpouring of toxic fluid, and then not holding itself “to the same standards as private companies that pollute.” For a few days, one of the most picturesque rivers in the American West resembled a flow of used mustard after EPA workers released millions of gallons of trapped poison from the mine – a situation the EPA normally is charged with preventing.

It occurs to me the EPA, contrary to opponents’ claims, has held itself tightly to private company standards. The federal, public, agency, once it was faced with the impossibility of disguising all those miles of once beautiful river turned baby-poop yellow, circled the wagons and began following a script with which many reporters are too familiar.

When faced with having done, or having been victimized by, something that looks bad either way, companies:

  • First, they say the infraction was small, and everyone is safe. They add that (in this case the river) is closed to recreation and human consumption, but only as a precaution.
  • A few days later, as news consumers turn their attention to the latest Kardashian exploit, the company (or EPA) quietly admits the spill was way larger than first thought – three million gallons and counting rather than the initially reported one million gallons – but everyone is safe and the river already is closed to recreation and consumption, but only as a precaution.
  • Still later – when, the company (or EPA) hopes – most news organizations are paying closer attention to Donald Trump’s impending political suicide than to the newly polluted river –, the offender reports the effects of the spill are returning to pre-spill levels. Everyone is safe, though the apparently clearing river will remain closed as a precaution pending results of water testing.

Probably few outside the immediate area would think to ask for a definition of “pre-spill levels,” or contemplate the possibility there were spills from other sources. That “other sources” argument would later be used when civilians begin claiming illnesses from the Gold King spill. It is a private company ploy with which Easterners are familiar. The major argument of Marcellus drillers has been that “there has been no proven link” between drilling and damaged health.

To ensure the accuracy of that claim, drillers have repeatedly stretched the time between accusation of wrong-doing and final settlement. And too often, the final result has been the company paying an allegedly injured family to move on – after exacting a promise that the family will say no more about the poisoned water they think sickened their children, or about the undisclosed amount they have been paid for their silence.

Natural gas drillers and other industries have been following the script EPA used whenever a pollution event occurs, especially when accompanied by alleged adverse effects to health. And along thousands of miles of Pennsylvania waterways, events similar to the Gold King spill are waiting to happen with, for instance, abandoned coal mines already leaking toxins into the Susquehanna River, which carries them toward those crabs for which the Chesapeake Bay is famous.

Accidents happen. That’s why they’re called accidents. And we have come to expect a no-fault response, including a refusal to comment at all, from private corporations.

We expect more – or should –from a public agency.

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