It’s outrageous that crews working for the federal Environmental Protection Agency carelessly unleashed 3 million gallons of toxic sludge from an abandoned mine last week in Colorado.
EPA officials, led by Administrator Gina McCarthy, must keep their promises to effectively repair the damage done by the hazardous spill and to fairly compensate landowners and others affected by it.
But seen in a broader light — and despite what hard-core EPA critics claim — this horrific accident should help 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, including from underground oil-carrying pipelines and coal-fired power plants. The nation also is dealing with thousands of Superfund sites, hazardous waste dumping grounds often created by irresponsible private companies.
As history shows, too many businesses will cut corners to make an extra buck. They are willing to cavalierly take great risks that ultimately damage the environment.
The Colorado spill is extremely unusual. In far more cases, scrutiny and even pressure by the EPA to follow the law have reduced the release of harmful pollutants that spoil the air that Americans breathe and the water they drink.
It’s also a good idea to look askance at claims by politicians — such as those made in recent days by U.S. Reps. Lynn Jenkins and Kevin Yoder of Kansas — that one of this nation’s main economic problems is the number of federal rules put in place by big, bad Washington, D.C.
While this might be a great applause line, the effective counterpoint is that federal — as well as state and local — regulations often are put in place for very good reasons. When it comes to the environment, those rules have saved lives and reduced health care bills for millions of people.
Without federal regulations that eliminated lead in gasoline and clamped down on vehicle emissions, Americans in some large cities today would be choking on Beijing-like air, not enjoying some of the cleanest air in generations. Indeed, the U.S. economy has grown over the last few decades even while the EPA “rulebook” has grown thicker.
The Colorado accident 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.
By Thursday, the EPA contended that the water quality in the Animas River near Silverton, Colo., had dramatically improved. But that’s partly because the toxic sludge has drifted down into the riverbed. The EPA’s cleanup plans for the heavy metals left behind are 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.
The accident involving the Gold King mine has caused great concerns for thousands of people living near more than 100 miles of waterways. But again, this incident is not the norm.
The EPA must be allowed to carry out its extremely important role in cleaning up pollutants while ensuring that strong regulations are in place to prevent future problems.