Accident aside, EPA still needed

In water colored yellow from a mine waste spill, officials examine the damage from kayaks.
In water colored yellow from a mine waste spill, officials examine the damage from kayaks. The Durango Herald via AP

It’s outrageous that contractors working for the federal Environmental Protection Agency carelessly unleashed three million gallons of toxic wastewater from the abandoned Gold King Mine into the Animas River in Colorado. The sludge was so thick it muddied the flowing water, turning it a sickening shade of ochre — a visual testament to the mess created.

EPA officials, led by Administrator Gina McCarthy, must keep their promises to effectively undo the damage done by the spill and to fairly compensate landowners and others affected by it.

But seen in a broader light — and despite what hardcore EPA critics claim — this horrific accident helps drive home the point that the agency is needed more than ever. In fact, it would be even more outrageous if the EPA’s opponents successfully used the Colorado incident to tamper with the agency’s crucial watchdog role.

Potential environmental disasters abound in this country. There are also thousands of Superfund sites, hazardous-waste dumping grounds often created by irresponsible private companies. Yet several states, including Florida, are fighting the EPA.

Last week, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi joined 16 other states in a legal action against the EPA, accusing it of illegally invalidating the individual air-quality protection plans in those states. The reason: In June, the EPA issued a final rule requiring 35 states, including Florida, to revise their individual State Implementation Plans governing carbon emissions during a power plant’s start-up, shutdown or malfunction.

“We will not step aside while the EPA, through heavy-handed federal overreach, threatens to upend a system that the EPA has approved multiple times and has provided a consistent, reliable framework to safely provide electricity to millions of Floridians across the state; furthermore, the agency’s action could result in higher utility bills for Florida consumers,” Ms. Bondi said.

But the Sierra Club quickly issued a statement defending the EPA’s actions in Florida: “By asking the courts to halt implementation of the Clean Power Plan, Ms. Bondi is siding with big polluters over the health and well-being of communities across the state. She should be standing up for the health of Florida’s people and the economic benefits the CPP will provide to our state instead of fighting clean energy measures and important pollution safeguards,” the group said.

The EPA is there to fight states, along with corporations and smaller businesses, that cut corners to make an extra buck. They are willing to cavalierly take great risks that ultimately imperil our environment.

The Colorado accident, although unusual, should force Americans to confront the fact that mining-related disasters could occur elsewhere. Some mining companies have disappeared, leaving behind thousands of polluted sites for someone else to deal with.

The EPA’s cleanup plan for the heavy metals left behind in the Animas River is still being devised, and officials concede it could take years to safely remove them. The costs likely will be staggering, yet another good argument for effective environmental rules, which in this case will guarantee that the river will be restored.

Regardless of the huge blunder at the Gold King Mine, the EPA must be allowed to carry out its extremely important role of helping preserve our environmental future.

A version of this editorial first appeared in The Kansas City Star.