I have often wondered why it seemed appropriate to store waste materials on the side of a river. There has been a number of incidents in recent years – the gold mine waste in the Animis River in Colorado, and coal ash spills in Tennessee and West Virginia. The latter caused a large percentage of the people in West Virginia to lose their water supply for months. Historically the waste ponds were conveniently downhill from mines and power plants, but the logic behind it makes no sense. No one asked “What could possibly happen if the “dam” broke?” The results are potentially catastrophic to the ecosystem and utilities have no ability to treat the water to remove these tiny articles – filters won’t do it an membranes will foul. Neither resolves the problem. Add to it that USEPA have levied the fewest enforcement action and fines in 25 years, a trend that has been ongoing tor the past 3 years. Only 75 cases were files in 2019.
The good news that in spite of the lack of federal efforts, some states have been undertaking the effort. Duke Power and the State of North Carolina have reached an agreement to remove 80 tons of material at its last 9 coal plants, adding to the 126 million tons removed earlier. Duke Power has 15 years to accomplish the work. Other states, in the southeast have been making the push. Only Alabama Power has not agreed to remove coal ash.
The question is what happens in the west where mine tailings and mine waste ponds, like the one causing the Animis River issue, remain a threat to water supplies and ecosystem. The Richmond Mine in California, Summitville in Colorado, Brohm n South Dakota, and more have potential risks to the public the reality is that while the mining has brought economic opportunities to the west for over 150 years, metals, acids and salts are left behind leaving the taxpayers with the bill to clean up the mess.
The issue for all of us, including water systems, is that we all share the same air and water. When the water or air gets polluted, those that suffer are the downstream users which are often water customers. We cannot isolate ourselves from water issues, nor allow those that pollute the waters to run form their responsibility. That is what those pesky environmental regulations that many complain about, are supposed to accomplish. Unlike the EU though, American politicians are not of one mind that pollution protection is in the interests of the general public over the rights of individualism. Some argue that pollution protection is anti-capitalism and thereby hurts the econo9my. But if is impacts public health and welfare, does that not trump the argument about economic growth. Doesn’t the costs of health impacts need to be taken into account? And since it should, when are mine operators, past and present going to address their streamside problems?