The most reviled woman in America right now should be Gina McCarthy.
She’s not, because most Americans don’t know who she is. And she did apologize.
McCarthy, a white-haired environmentalist from Massachusetts, heads the Environmental Protection Agency, which mistakenly released 3 million gallons of highly toxic yellow water into the once-pristine Animas River, the waste eventually snaking into Lake Powell, the Grand Canyon and the San Juan River. Levels of arsenic are 300 times safe levels; levels of lead are 3,500 times normal. Wildlife, animals, fish and, oh yes, people must not touch this water.
Summer has been ruined for thousands; kayaking, fishing and camping are over. Damage to wildlife is incalculable. The Navajo Nation, which depends on river water, is distraught. Animal owners are frightened for livestock. Bathing is a difficult luxury. And nobody knows the long-term consequences of heavy metals including cadmium, mercury and copper in drinking water and watering crops America depends upon for food. Colorado and New Mexico declared states of emergency.
McCarthy said she was absolutely, deeply sorry. “I don’t have a complete understanding of anything that went on in there. If there is something that went wrong, we want to make sure it never goes wrong again,” she said before finally going to look at the ecological disaster herself a week after it happened. EPA did not inform state or local officials of the catastrophe for 24 hours.
Something did go wrong when cleanup crews from the EPA breached a retaining wall holding back a century’s accumulation of toxic water from the abandoned Gold King mine in southern Colorado. Investigations will commence. And once again Republicans will dump all over the EPA, arguing that it oversteps its authority, mucks around in business affairs and sets regulations that industry finds onerous.
Last year in nine counties in West Virginia, a toxic chemical used to wash coal was released through negligence by Freedom Industries, forcing 300,000 people to search desperately for water in plastic jugs for weeks. Some who didn’t get word ended up in the hospital from using the contaminated water. Worse, exposure may have gone on for some time.
Despite criticism that it wields too much power, the EPA casts a shadow much less robust than it once did. But its mandate remains awesome — clean water, clean air, clean up of literally hundreds of thousands of abandoned toxic waste sites. Oh, and it’s supposed to be working to prevent climate change. The good news is that America’s air and water are cleaner than they were when EPA was created in 1970. But the agency spends much of its time, energy and resources in court trying to do its job.
Republicans in Congress fought to cut EPA’s budget from about $8 billion to $5.5 billion. President Barack Obama agreed to a $300 million cut by reducing money to help states pay for clean water projects, including drinking water and sewage treatment.
Many Republicans want to get rid of the EPA and its bureaucrats. The Wall Street Journal editorial team thoughtfully concluded that the uproar would be far greater if a private company had caused the Colorado spill. (Imagine the nerve of government criticizing British Petroleum for polluting the Gulf of Mexico!) A private company did cause the West Virginia accident; officers of the company were indicted after EPA investigated. New safety laws were passed.
Of Colorado, McCarthy said, “We’re trying to be as cautious as we can and prudent. EPA’s core mission is to ensure a clean environment and to protect public health, so it pains me to no end to see this is happening.”
It should pain us all. And it should be a warning that if this happens on EPA’s watch, how much more environmental havoc could be wreaked if we weaken regulations, permit polluting industries to get away with even more and cut the budgets of people supposed to enforce environmental laws.
McCarthy rightly has been spending her time touting the need to combat climate change. But, Ms. McCarthy, it’s also about first doing no harm and being honest with the public from the get-go.
Ann McFeatters is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service.