EPA Is “Upset” About Three Million Gallon Animas River Spill

We wrote here and here about the Environmental Protection Agency’s colossal, three million gallon spill of mining waste containing lead, arsenic and other toxic substances into the Animas River in Colorado. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy says the agency is very sorry:

“We want to reassure everyone that the EPA does take full responsibility for the spill,” which took place at the long-closed mine north of Durango, she said. “No agency could be more upset about this incident and more dedicated to doing our job and doing it right.”

I don’t doubt that the EPA’s bureaucrats are upset, but will they actually bear responsibility for the spill as a private company would? Yesterday we contrasted the Animas River disaster with the far smaller Elk River, West Virginia discharge that happened last year. In that case, employees of the responsible company, Freedom Industries, were criminally prosecuted and did jail time. Does anyone at the EPA, or the EPA’s contractor that directly caused the Animas River spill, have to fear any such penalty? I doubt it.


Another analogous case is the coal ash spill into the Dan River in North Carolina, in February 2014. In that instance, Duke Energy was criminally prosecuted. When a private company causes a major water pollution incident, the site isn’t just crawling with EPA bureaucrats. It is crawling with FBI agents:

Three subsidiaries of North Carolina-based Duke Energy Corporation, the largest utility in the United States, pleaded guilty today to nine criminal violations of the Clean Water Act at several of its North Carolina facilities and agreed to pay a $68 million criminal fine and spend $34 million on environmental projects and land conservation to benefit rivers and wetlands in North Carolina and Virginia. …

Officials from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, EPA’s Office of Inspector General, the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division and the three U.S. Attorney’s Offices in North Carolina, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Criminal Investigations and the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) made the announcement following a plea hearing at the federal courthouse in Greenville, North Carolina today.

Criminal prosecutions of polluters are always accompanied by self-righteous pronouncements by the EPA and the Department of Justice, even though the pollution is entirely accidental:

“Over two hundred sixteen million Americans rely on surface water as their source of drinking water. Duke Energy put that precious resource at risk in North Carolina as the result of their negligence,” said Assistant Administrator Cynthia Giles for EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. “Companies that cut corners and contaminate waters on which communities depend, as Duke did here, will be held accountable.”

Who in the Obama administration will be held accountable for the Animas River spill? And will accountability mean criminal prosecution, or a smaller raise next year?

“Duke Energy’s crimes reflect a breach of the public trust and a lack of stewardship for the natural resources belonging to all of the citizens of North Carolina,” said U.S. Attorney Thomas G. Walker for the Eastern District of North Carolina. “The massive release at the Dan River coal ash basin revealed criminal misconduct throughout the state — conduct that will no longer be tolerated under the Judgment imposed by the court today.”

Is the Department of Justice investigating the Animas River discharge for potential criminal prosecution of EPA officials and others? If not, why not?

Marco Rubio talked about the EPA’s disaster today on the Hugh Hewitt show:

Hugh Hewitt: All right, my last question goes to what is probably the largest toxic spill on land in American history, the Animas River. It was the EPA that caused it. The EPA administrator for that region is Sean McGrath. He’s another Obama political operative. He served from the beginning in the Obama administration, the White House Governmental Affairs before being shuttled over to run the EPA. It’s like the OPM director, Katherine Archuleta. Cronyism is everywhere, and they’re not competent, Marco Rubio. What do you make of the EPA polluting in this massive, destructive act, and what’s it go to the competence of the Obama administration generally?

Senator Rubio: Well, obviously, it calls that into question. And it’s a horrifying thing that’s happened, and it’s because of the incompetence of the EPA. And my guess is they’re going to be sued for millions and millions of dollars in damages.

Which of course will be paid by the taxpayers.

Those farmers now that are in that area, a lot of them are Indian tribes. They can’t even water or irrigate, because they could lose their crops, because the only water they’re allowed to use is water that’s being tanked in, and it’s for drinking and bathing and cooking. So they don’t have any ability to irrigate their crops, and they could lose those crops, which for many of them is their livelihood.

But here’s the bigger problem. They’re completely unresponsive. They’re providing no insight, no information, nothing whatsoever. And you see the governor of, for example, New Mexico, Susanna Martinez, expressing extraordinary frustration that even after they make this mistake, they go into a defensive posture. They clam up. So it’s not just the crisis they’ve created, it’s their response to it that belies arrogance and this notion that yeah, we’re sorry it happened, but we don’t need to give you any more information, because we’re the EPA and you can’t do anything to us. So I think it’s both incompetence and arrogance at play.

The issue here isn’t just schadenfreude, although it’s hard not to feel a bit of that. The issue is that government is inherently less accountable, less transparent and less responsive than private industry. Bureaucrats are at least as likely as corporate executives to make mistakes, and when they do, they are far less likely to be held accountable to correct them. This is one of many reasons why we should repose less power in government, not more.