EPA’s Toxic Mine Spill Could Cost Taxpayers $28 Billion To Clean Up

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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Not only will the EPA wastewater spill in Colorado cause environmental damages for decades to come, but it could also end up costing taxpayers tens of billions of dollars, according to a new report.

The right-leaning American Action Forum estimates the total cost for responding to the Gold King Mine Spill could range from $338 million to $27.7 billion based on the federal government’s own cost-benefit analyses for cleaning up toxic waste and oil spills.

“There is no direct precedent for the toxic Animas River spill in Colorado and past regulatory actions from agencies, but we can learn from previous benefit-cost estimates,” writes Sam Batkins, AAF’s director of regulatory policy, adding that he “evaluated four recent regulations’ benefit figures to approximate the cost of the current spill in the Mountain West.”

Earlier this month, EPA-supervised contractors working on limiting wastewater discharge from abandoned mines in southern Colorado ended up unleashing 3 million gallons of waste from the Gold King Mine after breaking a water-retention wall with heavy equipment.

Mine waste has spread hundreds of miles to Lake Powell in Utah since the initial breach, and experts have stated it could take decades to clean up the mine waste that’s spread throughout Navajo Nation.

In its latest press update on the mine spill, the EPA said that “drinking water systems and recreational activity along the Animas and San Juan rivers can resume based on water quality sampling results” done by state and federal officials. The agency, however, is still providing water to locals for drinking and agriculture.

The question now for taxpayers is how much EPA’s blunder is going to cost them.

One pending EPA rule governing the discharge of toxic metals from power plants claims benefits of $424 million from reducing 0.47 billion pounds of pollutants. AAF adjusted these figures to match the EPA-caused spill of mine waste — which included lead and arsenic — into Colorado’s Animas River and found the spill cleanup could cost $2.7 million.

But that’s on the low end. AAF also looked at the Interior Department’s claimed benefits for avoiding a “catastrophic oil spill” in the Arctic to gauge how much cleaning up the Animas and San Juan rivers could cost. Interior said the costs of a huge oil spill in the Arctic could range from $10 billion to $27.7 billion.

Now, AAF acknowledged a mine waste spill in Colorado is nothing like a major oil spill in the Arctic, but Batkins noted that “agencies routinely claim that quantified figures of environmental benefits are understated.” He added that  “even if the direct costs of the spill are quantified with some precision, certain ‘non-use values’ might drive up the qualitative costs.”

“The full costs of the Animas spill might range between $2.7 million, $424 million, or $16.3 billion, but it will probably take months to assess the full damage,” Batkins wrote. “From qualitative non-use costs, a direct environmental toll, to the commercial losses from a damaged river, EPA’s clean-up task will involve more than just talk.”

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