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Can you believe what we’re reading about the latest instance of government incompetence? First, the EPA appears to keep the Animas River accident under wraps for three days, until everyone can’t help but notice the whole river has turned orange-yellow. Pretty color for a river. Then they reassure everyone the local drinking water is safe. Do you have confidence in the Environmental Protection Agency, when they accidentally spill three million gallons of metal-laden water into a local watercourse, and days later, when people start to see the whole river has gone orange-mustard, they say you have nothing to worry about?

Colorado: visit our beautiful rivers.

It’s like one of those environmental disasters in Russia or China, where a government-run enterprise commits some horrible mistake, and no one knows about it until the Party, or the feds, can’t hide it anymore. Chernobyl was like that: the next day, after people are dead and dozens are falling ill with radiation sickness, the Soviet authorities say, “Oh yes, we had a minor fire at Chernobyl, but everything is under control.”

Gold King mine.

Three million gallons of slurry with unknown concentrations of zinc, manganese, arsenic, lead, and mercury in it may not be as deadly as gamma radiation from a nuclear power plant that explodes, but it is not good. The Animas River spill shows a level of incompetence on a level with the Exxon Valdez, the infamous spill in Alaska where the ship’s captain, Joseph Hazelwood, turned the helm over to an unqualified seaman and left the bridge in hazardous waters. The difference is that no one at the EPA will have to take responsibility for the Animas River disaster. Of course the EPA will use your tax money to clean up its own mess. The government cannot fine itself.

Here’s what I mean by incompetence. Rather than leave well enough alone and listen to people in the area, the EPA wants to clean up the Gold King mine near Silverton, Colorado. The mine has been closed since 1923. EPA goes to the site with heavy equipment. How heavy equipment would clean up the mine – or exactly what EPA wanted to clean up – is not clear. Apparently, EPA engineers thought the pile of loose rock and dirt that plugged up the mine was a solid dam. It also had no idea how much water was in the mine. I’m guessing that if it did not know how much water was in the mine, it also did not know the concentration of toxic metals in the water.

Map of the Animas River spill.

Can you even imagine anything like that? It’s like a plumber who comes to your home to take care of a drain problem, and when he leaves you have raw sewage all over your living room. Accident investigators try to distinguish acts of God from human error. They also try to distinguish catastrophic failures from small events that may contribute to an accident. The Animas River spill is a catastrophic failure due entirely to human error.

People went messing around at a site where they did not gather even basic facts before they intervened. Old mines collect water. Don’t you think that if you want to clean up an old mine, you would determine how much water it holds first? Wouldn’t you want to know exactly where the water sits? Then wouldn’t you develop a clean-up plan based on the geologic and hydrologic information you’ve gathered? Would you go in with vague information and no sound plan, then destroy a barrier that holds back three million gallons of poisonous water?

Fresh water in the Animas River, before contamination.

EPA caused a horrendous spill entirely by its own actions. Then it pretended nothing had happened for seventy-two hours.

To take another recent example of government incompetence, if you want to protect computerized personnel records from hacking, are you going to ask government’s Office of Personnel Management to make them secure? If you want to protect the environment from a massive spill of mine sludge into a pristine river, are you going to ask the Environmental Protection Agency to care for the river?

Why do we place confidence in overly aggressive government officials, who pretend to competence they don’t have? They prove with almost everything they undertake that we cannot trust them. We do not owe them deference, even though they claim it. They have no claim on our respect, and our only hope for safety is to limit the damage they do.


The Animas River disaster occured on Wednesday, August 5. EPA’s first notification of the spill came on Saturday, August 8.

Do you want to know how beautiful this river was? See Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which used settings near the river for filming.

Related articles

Gold King Mine Release Incident

Everything You Need To Know About The Animas River Spill

What the EPA was doing when it sent yellow sludge spilling into a Colorado creek