Buss: The EPA, unmasked

Kaitlyn Buss
The Detroit News

With great power comes great responsibility.

But the Environmental Protection Agency appears to want all the power and none of the responsibility — not a good harbinger for a future that promises ever-greater EPA control of Americans' lives and the economy.

On Aug. 5, workers contracted with the EPA punctured a wall at Gold King Mine, releasing 3 million gallons of century-old toxic sludge into the fast-moving waters of Colorado's Animas River. Lead, arsenic, mercury and other chemicals were unleashed into the crystal green waters, turning the river bright orange.

The ramifications are unknown. The polluted water has flowed from Colorado into Utah and New Mexico, affecting the water supply of the Navajo Indian tribe and many nearby residents, poisoning river banks and soil, and flowing out into the ocean.

Accidents happen, and even the EPA is subject to human error. But if a private company had caused such an environmental catastrophe, the government would be hammering it.

It took EPA administrator Gina McCarthy almost a week to apologize for the mine spill, and the agency has consistently downplayed the environmental damage it caused.

"I suspect the EPA might have a better understanding — particularly after they get the price tag on the remediation of this area — of how they treat the private sector in these moments," said Colorado State Sen. Ellen Roberts, who represents Silverton, Col., where the mine spill occurred. "It might be a teachable moment for them."

More broadly, the spill illustrates how the EPA does business.

It holds a holier than thou standard, castigating companies whose actions might harm the environment, but takes little accountability for its own actions that hurt businesses and communities, or that do explicit damage to the environment.

The EPA puts up a façade of transparency. It solicits public comments then ignores the expertise, opinions, and resources of local residents and governments, instead prioritizing ideology, politics and funding.

The agency swooped into Silverton, Col., a rural town that relies on tourism, to potentially designate the area a Superfund site. That would open up the agency to extra funding.

The EPA said it needed to inspect the mining area because "experience" at other sites sometimes revealed soil contamination, according to a March report in the Silverton Standard.

Silverton residents resisted, arguing the EPA was using inconclusive, 15-year-old data, and that school grounds had tested negative for heavy metals as recently as 2010.

The EPA pushed forward, ignoring feedback from residents. A local geologist wrote a letter to the editor just days before the mine spill, warning the agency's "grand experiment" would fail and the river would be contaminated.

Sure enough, it failed.

"Many people in the area were totally questioning the EPA's technique in how they did this," Roberts said. "They didn't think the approach they took was going to work, or made any sense."

Local residents' outrage over the disaster would be understandable in any case. But given the extent to which they were concerned about the operation and potential Superfund designation, their anger is even more justified.

The Gold King Mine spill highlights the fundamental problem with the EPA. The agency issues overreaching regulations based on suspected trends in science and potential impacts on the environment, while ignoring or discounting the actual harm it causes to communities, the economy, and even the environment itself.

The EPA's new Clean Power Plan, which regulates carbon emissions from power plants, threatens to significantly alter the country's economy, increasing energy costs for every American.

The rule is based on suspected science that ignores the unique energy producing ability of states and regions. It will potentially devastate states like Michigan, which will have to restructure its own 10-year energy plan off of affordable, clean natural gas, a now-taboo energy source the EPA would send the way of coal.

"We have a real interest in making sure we have a public policy consistent with making the environment clean," said Congressman Mike Bishop, R-Rochester. "But we have got to learn how to regulate in a way that doesn't overreach."

"There's no one holding them accountable," Bishop said of the agency.

After this recent disaster, that's true of its regulatory overreach and its actions.

The Colorado mine spill has unmasked the EPA's hypocrisy: looking down on companies and local governments, but hiding when it fails to live up to the standards it sets.

Kaitlyn Buss is a Detroit News editorial writer.