Monday, August 24, 2015

Cripple government, then call it ineffective

       While many observed in horror as a mothballed high-country gold mine shared an egg-yolk yellow stream of poison with three states via the Animas River (and the San Juan River 100 miles downstream), I thought of another stream -- a river of air.

        Years ago I flew with a Baylor University pilot/researcher who was tracking the plume of ozone and hydrocarbons from the petrochemical hive along Houston's ship channel to show how the gunk ended up time zones away.

Said dynamics are no revelation. Japan bathes in China's air pollution. Colorado's front range this week is obscured by smoke from  wildfires in Washington State and Idaho.

Environmental devastation is not a local matter. It's a collective concern. To the extent that it is a national matter, we need a robust and effective Environmental Protection Agency.

Don't tell this to the ideologues (job description for the 2016 GOP presidential soapbox derby?), who blithely speak of its abolition. So, too, with the controlling Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee. In June they voted to cut the EPA's budget by 9 percent, as if the nation's environmental challenges had receded with human progress.

            Reacting to the EPA's role in the eco-disaster from the venting of wastewater at the Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colo., Texas Congressman Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, said the EPA should be "held to the highest standard." No argument here.

           One would despair, however, waiting for Smith and fellow congressional Republicans to hold themselves to similar "highest" standards in helping the EPA do what it must.

           Instead, the Republicans want to cripple the agency.

           TV images coast to coast shared the disgusting ribbon of pollution from Gold King – "yellow boy" is what miners call a waste plume of dissolved iron. So presidential hopeful Ben Carson hopped a flight to the banks of TV cameras along the befouled river.

(The photo op happened to coincide with a fund-raiser with hyper-wealthy donors at Jackson Hole, Wyo., a plane hop north).

           Such eco-concern from you, Dr. Carson. Such a fertile moment to denounce government and the EPA.

The disaster was the agency's fault. No question. The company contracted to inspect the mine had miscalculated with heavy equipment. Presto: disaster.

          The fact is, however, that countless abandoned mines are shedding toxic juices every moment, a cumulative disaster that dwarfs the more photogenic one.

          Competing ideas are offered to address these problems. Gutting the EPA's budget, however, could not possibly be the most effective one.

          The EPA, in fact, had tried to get ahead of the problem. For 25 years it advocated designating Gold King a Superfund site, meaning we'd get serious about an environmental menace.

Local officials fought it. The stigma of being a Superfund site would drive away mining investors and tourists, they said.

But, you see, all things are connected in this ecosystem. When a mine threatens whole regions, its cleanup is our problem, not that of a few profit-seekers and provincial politicos.

What we see with the current political fusillade aimed at the EPA, rightfully in this case, is that old game that makes government failure a self-fulfilling proposition.

Remember how the congressional Republicans self-righteously bemoaned the difficulties in launching Suddenly they were concerned about people getting health coverage. Yeah, right. If they had their way, no one at all would be covered under the Affordable Care Act.

Let's face it: One segment of our political world is dedicated to befouling government. Then it can say, "See? Reagan was right. Government's the problem."

By the way, while the EPA was trying to do something about the Gold King Mine, Congress was taking its August recess.

Longtime newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email:

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