Gold King incident shows difficulty in cleaning contaminated sites
The Colorado mine spill that sent three million gallons of toxic sludge into a river last month highlighted the struggles of the federal Superfund program to clean up contaminated mining sites across the American West.
The program, administered by the Environmental Protection Agency, was set up in the 1980s to remediate the nation’s most polluted places, from old factories to landfills. But it has been especially strained by legacy mining sites, which are often impossible to permanently clean up and instead require water-treatment plants or other expensive measures to contain widespread pollution, experts say.
The EPA often faces opposition from communities that distrust the agency and remain fearful of the economic stigma of being labeled a Superfund site. The agency also frequently is confronted with deep-pocketed mining companies who try to fend off efforts to hold them at least partially responsible for cleanup costs.
And for the past decade, the EPA has had to work with diminished finances after levies on oil and chemical companies originally intended to help fund Superfund cleanups expired and weren’t renewed by Congress.
The result is that some old mining sites widely acknowledged to be severely contaminated—such as the Gold King mine that led to last month’s spill, and others dotting the Upper Animas River Basin near Silverton, Colo.—haven’t been contained or cleaned, as the EPA and other stakeholders squabble about the best solution.
“We at EPA are very good at technical cleanups,” said Scott Sherman, a former EPA official under President George W. Bush who helped oversee the Superfund program. “But asking us to navigate the politics of building municipal water-supply systems, to doing land planning, to taking people out of a whole town and moving them—these are the types of complexities that are beyond the core of the Superfund cleanup program.”
EPA officials acknowledged that Superfund resources were stretched thin for the complex cleanups that old mining sites require.
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