Gwen Lachelt is a La Plata County commissioner.
Durango, Colo. — THE recent mining pollution spill in my corner of Colorado — La Plata County — is making national news for all the wrong reasons. Beyond the spill and its impact on everyone downstream, the underlying causes are far more worrisome and dangerous than just a mistake made by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Yes, it is a cruel irony that an E.P.A. contractor, while trying to clean up pollution from old mines, instead made the problem much, much worse. The jaw-dropping before-and-after photos contrasting the pre-spill Animas River I know and love with the subsequent bright orange, acidic, heavy-metal-laden travesty are sadly accurate.
The Animas River is the heart of La Plata County. Our jobs rely on it, people the world over travel here to raft and fish it, and farmers and ranchers feed their animals and water their crops with it. But more than that, it’s a member of the community. We see it every day. We play in it. We work with it. And of course we drink it. It’s no overstatement to say that La Plata County as we know it would not exist without the Animas River.
The damage caused by this spill is all the more heartbreaking because it is part of a larger national and ongoing tragedy: the hundreds of thousands of inactive and abandoned mines that litter our country, thanks to the General Mining Law of 1872.
President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Mining Law when the nation (apart from Native Americans, who had already lived here for thousands of years) regarded the West as a frontier to be conquered. Governing hard-rock mining, mostly of metals like gold and copper, the law is a product of its time.
It gave away public minerals (worth an estimated $300 billion and still counting); sold mineral-bearing public lands for less than $5 an acre; contained no environmental provisions for mining operations, and required no cleanup afterward. Apart from a few small regulatory changes in 1980, the 19th-century act is still the law of the land.
For the rest of this article, click here: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/20/opinion/when-a-river-runs-orange.html?_r=0