To: Detroit Workers' Voice mailing list
August 19, 2015
RE: The Navajo Nation and the Toxic Spill in the Animas River

More on the Major Toxic Spill in Colorado

by Pete Brown, Detroit Workers' Voice

The toxic spill from the Gold King mine into the Animas River continues to have ramifications nearly two weeks after it occurred. Toxic heavy metals continue to swirl downstream or settle on the river bottom. Residents of the region are protesting, preparing to sue the EPA, and looking for ways to clean up the gigantic legacy of poisonous abandoned mines. Water-speed calculations show that water contaminated from the toxic spill has now arrived at Lake Powell, 300 miles downstream. Farmington, New Mexico is still getting its water from alternative sources. Much of the heavy metals have now settled on the river bottom, and the river water is supposedly clear, according to local politicians. The governor of Colorado, a Democrat named Hickenloop, devised a PR stunt in which he drank a glass of water from the Animas River and declared the river and the city of Durango open for business. But he didn’t go swimming or wading in the river. Hickenloop previously carried out a similar stunt with frack water, drinking a glass of it to prove how safe it is. We’ll see how long he lives.

The federal EPA, which caused the original accident, has tried to downplay the disaster from the start. They first gave a low estimate of how big the toxic spill was and then gradually, as facts began to overwhelm them, gave higher and higher estimates, topping out finally at three million gallons.

The Navajo Nation has declared a state of emergency and told tribal members to avoid using the river water for irrigating crops and watering livestock. The Nation’s leader has condemned the federal EPA for trying to get Navajos to sign waiver forms in order to get immediate assistance from the government. EPA representatives have been offering Navajo farmers temporary assistance if they sign a waiver of future compensation. But some of the effects of arsenic, cadmium, lead, etc. may not show up in crops and animals for months if not years, so this is a very dirty practice on the part of the EPA, especially since many of the Navajos barely speak English.

Angry Navajos confronted Sen. John McCain and Arizona Governor Doug Ducey when they paid a visit to the Navajo capital of Window Rock last Saturday. Sixty protesters sat in at the Navajo capitol building, beating drums and singing, while protesters outside held up banners denouncing McCain. In a quick private meeting, tribal leaders told McCain they don’t trust the EPA and complained about being ignored by the White House. Besides old gold and silver mines, Navajos are still suffering from the uranium mines on their reservation built during the Cold War. McCain’s public meeting was cancelled, and after he ducked out a side door protesters chased his limo out of Window Rock yelling, “Get off our land!”

The Gold King disaster is a wake up call about the dangers from old abandoned mines. There are half a million of these mines scattered around the western U.S., and many of them are leaking dangerous chemicals. The EPA says 40% of river headwaters in the West are impaired by acid mine drainage, and they’ve made a list of 230 old mines in Colorado that they know are leaking significant amounts of chemicals. The amount of discharge from these mines, if added up, would equal one Gold King disaster every two days. The EPA is slowly trying to clean up these sites, but the job is daunting in this era of austerity and budget cuts. Two years ago the EPA placed a bunch of trout in the Animas near the Gold King mine to test it; the fish all died in a few days. This impelled them to prioritize the Gold King and try to clean it up. But as we all know now, they blew it.

But wait a minute! Aren’t the mine’s owners responsible for cleaning it up? The outrageous answer is: NO. Hard-rock mining is regulated by a federal law passed in 1872 which exempts mine owners from any royalties or fees and exempts new owners from responsibility for legacy chemical waste. The owner of the Gold King is thus free from any responsibility for toxic discharge from the mine. The state and federal governments are alone responsible for mine cleanup, and of course their funds have been cut again and again. The EPA has tried to get areas around Durango declared a toxic zone so they could access Superfund money, but local and state politicians have opposed having their region declared an industrial dump site.

This lack of tough regulations for mining reminds one of the 2005 Energy Policy Act. This law included the infamous Halliburton Loophole which exempted fracking for oil and gas from the Safe Water Drinking Act. Even doctors trying to treat victims of fracking are not allowed to access information about fracking fluids and the chemicals involved because it might contain trade secrets.  With this kind of law, and captured regulatory agencies overseeing it, we are living in a virtual carbon dictatorship. Grassroots citizen activism as in the movement to ban fracking is needed to reverse this.

Put on the defensive, the oil and gas industry is now claiming that they welcome regulation and will be responsible partners in energy development. But they only talk this way so they can oppose a ban on fracking with “responsible regulation.” Regulations on fracking have been shown not to work as long as they still allow this dangerous practice to continue. Regulating energy development should include a complete ban on fracking just as, previously, dangerous chemicals like DDT and CFCs were completely banned.

The Gold King disaster shows the need for a massive national effort to deal with cleanup of past environmental destruction. To finance this we need to be able to tax the mining industry – not only individual companies, which may come and go, but the industry as a whole. Similarly, when it comes to oil and gas, we need strict regulation of the energy companies coupled with overall planning of carbon emissions. We should be developing renewable energy sources instead of sinking money into fossil fuel production, especially dangerous methods like fracking. None of this will happen, however, without citizen activism, community involvement and workers’ supervision to make sure companies are obeying environmental regulations. <>

(Pete Brown is active on the petition to ban fracking in Michigan.)

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Posted on August 31, 2015