The Environmental Protection Agency often justifies its own existence by noting that corporations – who see profit as their goal, rather than environmental protection – are ill-equipped (or at least, ill-prioritized) to care for America’s natural resources.

It turns out that, perhaps, the EPA might also be ill-equipped to handle toxic waste, when it comes to preventing large-scale pollution of our nation’s waterways. In fact, they may have caused, on their own, one of our nation’s greatest environmental disasters.

EPA crews trying to collect and contain wastewater in the Gold King mine in Durango, Colo., loosed 1.1 million gallons of “acidic, yellowish” discharge, causing the pollution – which includes levels of arsenic, lead, cadmium, aluminum and copper – to flow into the Animas River (an early tributary of the Colorado) at a rate of 1,200 gallons per minute.

From the Denver Post:

EPA chiefs flew in Friday and acknowledged an inappropriate initial response Wednesday in which they downplayed the severity and failed to anticipate the downstream impacts.

Durango identifies itself as the “River City,” and residents’ lives revolve around fishing, swimming, tubing and entertaining tourists along the Animas River.

Most longtime residents know too well the problem of old mines that leak heavy metals into headwaters — an issue around Colorado and the western United States — but never expected a ruinous onslaught like this.

Holly Jobson, 62, walking at noon along banks where yellow sediment was glomming onto rocks, said Silverton ought to push for a proper federal cleanup around mines. Silverton officials in the past have resisted, fearing the stigma of a federal Superfund cleanup designation and the impact on tourism.

By Monday morning, the water flow had decreased to around 580 gallons per minute. Lab testing has not yet begun on-site, and the EPA is apologizing for their slow response rate, particularly considering the magnitude of the incident. Durango gets most of its water from the Aminas River and relies on the river’s beauty to bring tourists to the town. The city has already lost $150,000 in revenue this month. About 1,000 water wells are presumed contaminated.

The EPA has not only claimed responsibility for the spill, but is claiming responsibility for a slow response as well. The EPA says now that the spill was far faster, and far larger than they initially assumed.

The EPA did not have to be on-site, to begin with, it seems. The region has a coalition of local organizations called the Animas River Stakeholders Group who have worked together since 1994 to address pollution coming out of nearby mines. The Gold King mine is widely known to be one of the most polluted, leaking around 50 to 250 gallons of wastewater per minute. While the group had pushed to find the source of the leak and stem it from there, the EPA went ahead with the project apart from the group, and seemingly without local expertise.

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