Risk and Outrage on the Animas River

Outrage is directly correlated with what is visible and easy to understand, not what is actually outrageous.

The Animas River at the Colorado- New Mexico state line, August 7, 2015. Photo courtesy Melissa May.

The Animas River at the Colorado- New Mexico state line, August 7, 2015. Photo courtesy Melissa May.

Case in point: the EPA accidentally released 1 million gallons of mine waste into the Animas River (while investigating how to stop mine drainage, no less), turning the river sludgy and bright orange. The response: HEADS MUST ROLL! Of course, mines developed by thousands of private individuals and companies have been slowly, invisibly poisoning the Animas for more than a century. They did so without violating any environmental or public health laws, precisely because there were no such limitations on the mining industry for decades. This is seen as a fact of life and no-one has seriously demanded that the inheritors of the responsible parties be identified and compelled to clean up these mines. After all, there are thousands and thousands, whose owners are dead and bankrupt. The effort involved would be maddeningly difficult- and arguably unfair, given the time that has passed and the many steps of legal succession between the original developers and now. These developers introduced so much mine waste into the Animas system (far more than the EPA) that there have not been fish in the river above Durango for decades. This fact, in a rational world, would prompt the sort of public demand for comprehensive remediation that moves public and private action.

In fact, many locals resisted a comprehensive cleanup effort in the 1980s and 90s because labeling the region a Superfund site would be bad for tourism. The EPA complied with their wishes and started the exact sorts of piecemeal investigations that prompted last week’s spill (which had all gone rather well, until it, you know, didn’t)… and now locals demand the EPA compensate, wait for it, the damaged tourist industry.

All development of the natural environment carries risk to our water resources. I suppose it’s human nature to ignore that fact and instead focus on the bright orange river staring you in the face.

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2 thoughts on “Risk and Outrage on the Animas River

  1. Here’s a rambling stream-of-consciousness reply for you: All human endeavors involve risk to someone or something. And catastrophic failures bring attention precisely, as you described, because of the observable magnitude. Incremental change is never impressive. Fortunately, magnitude and frequency typically demonstrate an inverse power function. Lots of fender-benders on the highway and few 50-car pileups. Perhaps as you point out, with pollution, the incremental is more disastrous than the spectacular precisely because it goes unnoticed. But, maybe the low-level pollution, distributed over a longer time scale falls within the natural self-remediating powers of the environment…and it is indeed the spectacular event that is most catastrophic.

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