When the river runs orange and the EPA doesn't have money to clean it up, that's bad news for the outdoor recreation economy.
When the Animas River ran the color of Tang in August, 2015, it was bad for business. Tainted with more than 3 million gallons of gold mine wastewater laced with heavy minerals, the orange flow traveled downstream fast enough to catch kayakers mid-paddle.
The Gold King Mine spill, near Durango, Colo., was triggered by contractors for the Environmental Protection Agency. Now, EPA grants to clean up the mess are at risk, along with funding for other EPA projects environmentalists say are vital.
“[The Animas] is a pivotal part of the community here,” says Gus Allen, a six-year resident of Durango and ski tech at Backcountry Experience, one of the local gear shops. Durango is built up around the river, the city’s whitewater park hosts a festival at the start of the run, and tubers flock to float there later in the season.
Last spring, runoff washed down more of that spill, and the river again turned orange.
“It’s strange to look at,” Allen says. It’s not good for business, either. “We tend to be very concerned with what’s going on in our environment and the river’s a big part of our environment here. Anything that affects the environment negatively affects our economy.”
EPA grants at risk
EPA grants like those that will be used to clean up the area and prevent a similar spill in the future are now at risk, along with funding for other EPA projects environmentalists say are vital.
The EPA is still at work mitigating the cluster of mines upstream from Durango that have long been draining into the waterways, though often in more subtle ways. The agency recently installed a water treatment center directly at the Gold King Mine site.
Whether that project, with $1.5 million pledged for its remediation, and others move forward hinges on federal funds, and no one is certain whether, or how much, of those funds states will see in the coming years.
Myron Ebell, former head of President Donald Trump’s transition team, has suggested reducing the agency’s workforce by two-thirds—some 10,000 staff positions—and slicing its $8 billion budget in half. Ebell is director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a nonprofit public policy organization that helps craft and market legislation. Its largest program is aimed at questioning “global warming alarmism” and Ebell himself is a climate change denier.
A brief freeze of grants and contracts the last week in January sent states and conservation groups scrambling, and gave just a sense of what that reduction might feel like. EPA grants and contracts provide an estimated $5 billion in funding to states each year, according to usaspending.gov. Projects range from cleaning up former mines to addressing the issues fueling a water crisis in Flint, Mich. In California alone, the 2016 fiscal year accounted for some $378 million in federal support. In Washington, it was more than $152 million, and in Colorado, $91 million.
The Gold King Mine spill is hardly the only one in the American West, which is home to most of the nation's estimated 500,000 abandoned mines. But it prompted the area’s addition to the National Priorities List as a Superfund Site in need of federal funds to clean up the mess. An estimated 47 inactive mine sites in the Animas River headwaters pour out more than 5 million gallons a day of contaminated water.
“As far as we know, all grants and funding are on the table for being cut,” says Cesia Kearns, Sierra Club’s deputy campaign director for the West. “So that’s things like support for Superfund site cleanup and habitat restoration, which of course is important in and of itself, but also important for recreation, and hunting and fishing.”
Reductions could also hit grants to tribal nations, pollution monitoring and intervention programs for frontline communities, and research about climate change, the destruction it may cause and adaptation it could require.
In Kearns’s backyard, the Portland Harbor—a 10-mile stretch of the riverfront right through downtown Portland, Oregon, alongside a city park used for summer festivals, weekend markets and subjected daily to a steady supply of joggers and cyclists—was declared a Superfund Site in 2000 after decades of industrial activity contaminated water and sediment in the Willamette River with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), pesticides and heavy metals. The EPA just finished investigating the scope of that problem to map out a remedy for it last year.
The outdoor industry has a ‘responsibility’ to stand up for EPA
The ongoing gag order for the EPA, among other federal agencies, only adds to the concern.
“We can’t talk to the EPA staff so it’s hard to know what to expect, which of course makes it hard for states and grant recipients in those states to be able to plan for the future,” Kearns says. “What’s alarming and confusing about all of this situation is we really want to see government transparency. … We don’t see that [this administration] intends to be a partner with states and transparent with people, or how that’s going to play out.”
That makes the outdoor industry’s influence all the more important, Allen argues.
“I think people in the outdoor industry have a responsibility to make our voice known, because we are a significant economic driver at this point,” he says. “It’s on us to make these cleanup projects happen and to keep up the overall advocacy for outdoor use and environmental responsibility.”