EDITORIAL: Privatize mine cleanups

By: The Gazette editorial
August 19, 2015 Updated: August 19, 2015 at 9:31 am
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photo - The EPA spilled 3 million gallons of sludge into the Animas River, as shown in this before and after photo. Today, the river appears clean again through Colorado as some toxins have settled on the river bed and others have headed west to Lake Powell. (photo courtesy of Durango Herald)
The EPA spilled 3 million gallons of sludge into the Animas River, as shown in this before and after photo. Today, the river appears clean again through Colorado as some toxins have settled on the river bed and others have headed west to Lake Powell. (photo courtesy of Durango Herald) 

For U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, timing has never been better to privatize some of the environmental cleanup the EPA has planned for old metal mines.

Tipton, a Cortez Republican representing Colorado's 3rd District, has spent years trying to get traction for his good Samaritan legislation. He envisions a law that would allow private organizations, without direct ties to any mine, to conduct reclamation under standards of the Clean Water Act. State lawmakers have also tried to facilitate private cleanup efforts of abandoned mines.

Legislators "have been trying to pass laws that would make it easier for groups to clean up toxic pollution from abandoned mines," explains the website of The Water Information Program, a consortium created by southwest Colorado water utilities. "These groups, which are not responsible for the pollution but want to clean it up anyway, are called, appropriately enough, Good Samaritans."

Critics have recoiled at the thought of putting the government's environmental work into private hands.

No longer should they perceive or argue a level of federal competence that exceeds what the private sector might provide. The EPA unleashed a toxic sludge of arsenic, lead and other harmful toxins without bothering to warn people downstream, including tribal leaders and governors of neighboring states. They botched the inspection that led to the spill and bungled the response.

Tipton — the member of Congress representing the location of the spill — told The Durango Herald's editorial board Monday that he was not contacted by the EPA. He received an apology only after he complained days later to the agency's Region 8 office in Denver.

Tipton said President Barack Obama has not responded to an Aug. 12 letter he coauthored with U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Cory Gardner, R-Colo., Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Martin Heinrich, D-N.M. The letter requests federal intervention in the EPA's mismanaged disaster.

"We think we've solved that mystery," said an article in Colorado Peak Politics, surmising why Obama had not responded. The website posted a Monday Headline from western Massachusetts' Masslive.com: "President Obama golfs, reads and enjoys private beach on Martha's Vineyard."

Accidents happen, but the federal response to a disaster caused by a federal agency has been devoid of urgency, intergovernmental communication and courtesy to burdened residents, businesses and farms.

Tipton's good Samaritan idea could provide a viable alternative to environmental reclamation in rural mining areas of Colorado that would suffer from the stigma of Superfund declarations. Old mining towns survive on tourism revenue, and Superfund sites aren't known as vacation hot spots. Tipton hopes the Gold King Mine might serve as a pilot project for a good Samaritan program.

The details, of course, will determine the political and practical feasibility of Tipton's vision. But given the EPA's stunning mishandling of the Gold King spill, it is hard to imagine a private-sector cleanup effort that could do more harm.

The Gazette

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