Toxic politics and media

Let’s start with the reassurance that the town of Crested Butte’s drinking water was never contaminated from a “spill” at the Standard Mine last week. If you drank the water from the tap a month ago, it would be pretty much the same water the day of the incident and every day since.

Now, as with most of life, things perhaps could have been handled a little better when looking back on any situation. I completely understand the hesitation and questioning of people in town after hearing about the incident, in which some water being treated in a holding pond for acidity and some sludge at the bottom of that pond was accidentally dispersed into Elk Creek. Like a game of “Telephone,” the rumors got worse as time went on and people read a Denver newspaper’s tilted take on the situation. It now appears that about 500 gallons accidentally went into the town’s watershed and was never in any position to harm the drinking water.

The town water experts, Rodney Due and David Jelinek, were made aware of the incident at the end of the business day Tuesday. They were initially under the impression that about 2,400 gallons of alkaline water spilled into the creek. They calculated that given the amount of water running in both Elk Creek and Coal Creek, the dilution would present no danger for the town. Add in that it would ultimately end up in a 10-million–gallon reservoir and be treated, and the town water guys and the EPA folks were confident there wasn’t much to worry about. Perhaps they could have sent out an e-alert to that effect Tuesday but they wanted to gather more information before worrying residents over something they didn’t think was worrisome. And let’s remember—if Due and Jelinek screw up something like this, they not only lose their license that provides them a living in the water business, they could be prosecuted and go to jail. So I believe they were being cautious and logical, given the situation as they understood it.

Then politics and the media came into play. And things blew out of proportion. I was informed of the incident and its qualifiers late Wednesday night. Early Thursday morning, we put out a notice on our Facebook page. We described it as a small spill that appeared to have no threat to human health. We promised details as they became public.

That Facebook post was shared and copied to Colorado politicians and various newspapers around the state. Within two hours of our Facebook notice, Republican congressman Scott Tipton’s office had sent out a press release banging the EPA and touting some “Good Samaritan” legislation he supports in mine cleanup work over the EPA. In other words, a politician pounced on a minor situation in our backyard to make political hay for himself and his political stands. Disappointing but not really surprising these days.

That Tipton release was then used as the basis for an article in the Denver Post that made the front page and was circulated widely on Facebook. That article appeared to be written to reinforce Tipton’s position and cast great fear over the town’s drinking water situation. As a guy who has been in the business a long time and has probably written a few things people think sucked, I know that the media can suck sometimes. The Post article sucked.

With the exception of reporting that the mayor said he didn’t know about the incident until Thursday (he actually found out Wednesday evening), the Post article wasn’t wrong on straight facts but was written in such a way as to sprinkle in references to scary items that the average reader would conclude applied in this immediate situation.

The article mentioned cancer-causing cadmium leaching into a primary source of water for Crested Butte; it repeatedly mentioned the recent Gold King Mine disaster near Silverton and Durango; it insinuated overall environmental disaster; it implied endangerment to people by mentioning that the state has determined levels of arsenic, cadmium and zinc in Coal Creek exceed state standards, when in fact they exceed “aquatic life” state standards but not state drinking water standards; it quoted state politicos beating the easy boogeyman of the big bad government agency by bringing in the state attorney general to comment on how the EPA is again apparently endangering Colorado waterways; and overall it just looked to push the most heinous outcome possible in a fluid situation. Those articles get read and “sell papers,” but it was a cheap article.

I am told by the public works director that the Post reporter had the town’s official statement on the incident but ignored it. “Based upon the size and content of the spilled material as understood from the EPA, the flow levels downstream, and the 10 million gallon storage reservoir at the Town’s treatment plant, the Town Department of Public Works has determined that any impact to the Town’s drinking water would be negligible,” the town clearly stated in its press release. That wasn’t in the Post article.

Instead, the Post piece lead with a comparison to the awful Gold King Mine incident that turned the Animas River “mustard-yellow” after more than three million gallons of very contaminated mine waste was released in an EPA accident. While stating the impact on town water was expected to be minimal, the article then gave Tipton’s dire view on the EPA as the article’s top comment. Cheap.

Look, everyone should understand this is an old mining area. Crested Butte sits beneath several abandoned mines that easily classify as Superfund sites. There’s some nasty stuff in the ground above us. It is there and has been there for a long time. Coal Creek used to be orange, not because it miraculously supported the Denver Broncos, but because old mines and the crap leaking from them contaminated the creek before the water treatment plant was built more than 30 years ago. Everyone should grasp that we live beneath old abandoned mines.

And guess what? It’s not the EPA’s fault. It’s the fault of slack regulation and greedy mine owners who walked away from poison mines after they sucked out the money. The EPA has been working hard for years to clean up a toxic mine discharge at the old Standard Mine. If they weren’t up there, that toxicity would be leaching more into the watershed today. So for politicians like congressman Tipton to bang the EPA for tackling a problem not of their making is just stupid and opportunistic. It’s politics. And the Denver Post fell into the political cesspool with that article. That was too bad because it scared some people who live here.

It’s not that a damaging mine spill couldn’t happen here—it could. But we need to deal in the world of facts. Should the town and EPA have made the incident public? Yes, and they did. Should they have followed up regularly with details and the facts as they become more clear? Yes, and they did, but that could have probably been done more thoroughly in hindsight. Understand, however, they were quickly caught in a cloud of poison, political gas as soon as Tipton and the Post went all Fox News–MSNBC on the situation.

This incident was an example of our small town being used as a pawn to sensationalize a politician’s position against an agency he apparently does not trust and a Denver paper’s ploy to help him, while sensationalizing a story to sell more papers and make people scared.

It wasn’t a perfectly handled situation but it wasn’t a mining disaster that ruined the town’s water supply—that could happen if the town, the EPA and other stakeholders like the Coal Creek Watershed Coalition weren’t working so diligently to clean up someone else’s century-old mess. This incident shows that politics and the media can sometimes be more toxic to a situation than the actual situation.

—Mark Reaman

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