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A calamity occurred last week in southwest Colorado. It was precipitated by contractors working for the Environmental Protection Agency.

The agency was “investigating” pollutants in a long-retired Colorado gold mine and in the process released highly contaminated waste water, 3 million gallons of it, into the Animas River. The toxic sludge, colored a dirty yellow, has coursed southward through Colorado into New Mexico where it will join the San Juan River, then through Utah to the Colorado River and into Arizona.

By accounts, the mega-spill continues to drain from an entrance to the legendary Gold King Mine. The effluent contains toxic mercury, arsenic, cadmium and lead derived from processing the gold ore previously mined at the site. On Aug. 5, EPA’s minions managed to destroy a berm that was holding the toxic waters within the mine, where the waste had been lying, quietly impounded behind permanent barriers for decades. But a minor seepage reportedly inspired aggressive actions by the agency that wound up creating a TV sensation.

A blunder of this scale reveals what can and too often does happen when a powerful federal agency decides it knows better, when ordinary common sense would dictate “let sleeping dogs lie.” A former adviser to President Jimmy Carter also said “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The minor seepage discovered prior to the massive spill was never going to poison tribe-owned cattle drinking from the Animas River on the Navajo reservations south of Durango.

It would be hilarious, were it not so disturbing, to find out how this incident came to be orchestrated by the very agency that claims it knows how to control global warming or to micro-manage the surface waters and wetlands of the United States. The EPA presumes to predict aspects of climate that most scientists say are impossible to predict, and yet they can’t manage to clean up toxic waste water without causing an enormous environmental disaster. This accidental spill will cost the taxpayers millions in the clean-up operations. Will the EPA assume responsibility by fining itself?

Or, will a court force EPA to compensate those who are harmed? Possibly so, but only after years of expensive litigation. The agency is almost sure to plead the doctrine of sovereign immunity to exempt itself from liability. Should some court rule in the plaintiffs’ favor, it will not be the agency itself but the U.S. taxpayers that pick up the tab.

This sad saga will enter those annals where government does more harm to the environment — and to people — than private persons and corporations. When the BP oil spill occurred in April 2010, President Obama reportedly was “looking for someone’s a** to kick.” This time the Obama White House has refused to comment. Press Secretary Josh Earnest refers all reporters’ questions back to the EPA.

Borrowing from former White House chief of staff and current Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, I, too, would recommend never letting a crisis go to waste. The incident should be held up for all the world to see how amateurs cannot be trusted to develop and implement sound environmental regulations without strict congressional oversight.

Continuing accounts say the Animas River is so badly contaminated that Colorado officials warn residents not to drink water drawn from the river or nearby wells and to immediately discontinue irrigation and watering of cattle on the Navajo reservation, as the yellow plume works its way downstream.

The effluent has reach Lake Powell on the Colorado River, a key water supply, and in time may threaten Lake Mead, which supplies water to drought stricken Los Angeles.

“What a revoltin’ development!” Indeed.

William D. Balgord holds a Ph.D. in geochemistry and heads Environmental & Resources Technology, Inc. in Middleton, Wisc.

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