Understanding the Historical Environmental Story Behind the EPA’s Animas River Spill

It’s been over a week since the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) inadvertently released an estimated three million tons of toxic wastewater into the Animas River, which temporarily turned the river orange. The long term effects on the 126 mile-long waterway that flows south from Colorado’s San Juan Mountains to Farmington, New Mexico where it joins with the San Juan River, are yet to be discovered.

The incident is an unfortunate setback for the EPA who had recently begun cleanup efforts in Colorado’s Silverton area where the spill occurred. The Washington Post detailed the area’s rich gold mining history in an article published earlier this week. It is essential reading that also provides important historical context about the area’s environmental problems, both natural and man-made.

Normally, the EPA is brought in to investigate such spills and lead remediation efforts. And, in fact, the EPA has had a presence in Silverton since the 1990s, when attempts were first made to hold the mining companies identified as responsible parties accountable for the area’s historic water contamination problems.

The EPA will be held accountable, too, for its new and unexpected role as polluter in the area. The wastewater its workers accidentally released while attempting to clean up the long-abandoned Gold King Mine was contaminated with arsenic, mercury, and heavy metals like lead. More information about this mine can be found in The New York Times’ “Environmental Agency Uncorks Its Own Toxic Water Spill at Colorado Mine” article.

This unfortunate incident brings to light many of the historical environmental issues that stem from polluted industrial sites throughout the country. In this case, though, there is a clearly identifiable responsible party. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy apologized for the incident earlier this week. Though this hasn’t done much to quell public outrage or growing criticism over its slow response time, it should be noted that trying to identify responsible and potentially responsible parties (PRPs) normally takes years, if not decades.

Last week’s incident isn’t the first and won’t be the last toxic spill to contaminate our waterways. We should know. Over the years, Taylor & Hammel researchers have completed many projects related to spills of a similar nature, including an EPA designated Superfund site in the northeast.

Our historical research expertise is often a critical component that helps our legal clients build their environmental and toxic tort cases. In addition to identifying PRPs, we’re typically asked to unearth federal, state, and local records that detail the extent of each PRPs involvement and capture volumetric information. We synthesize this information and compile comprehensive environmental site histories from it.

To learn more about the research services we provide to our legal clientele involved in cleanup and remedial efforts related to toxic spills, read our previous blog post titled “Finding Evidence: Research Tactics for Environmental Law & Toxic Torts.”