Governance and the Animas River mine waste mess

The pictures out of Durango today of mine waste in the Animas River are horrifying, and the federal Environmental Protection Agency is rightly taking a beating for the catastrophic mine waste leak:

The overall message from federal regulators was “we’re very sorry.”

“This is a huge tragedy and it’s hard being on the other side of this in terms of being the ones that caused this incident at this particular time,” Ostrander said. “We typically respond to emergencies, we don’t cause them.”

But as the blame game unfolds, it’s worth remembering that this failure of government, while avoidable, is only an issue at all because of a colossal failure of the private sector. Mine waste, a problem throughout the Rocky Mountain West and the culprit in this particular case, is the result of miners extracting resources, making their money, and then abandoning the remaining mess for government to deal with. It’s fair and proper to criticize government when it fails at that task, but let us not forget that that mine waste was only the EPA’s responsibility in the first place because the mine’s owners have abandoned them.

Our mine waste problem is a textbook example of what economists mean when they talk about “externalities”. A market failure of staggering proportions has left the government with a horrendous job.

Great background here from Stephanie Paige Ogburn about the particulars how messes like this happen.


  1. Back when the mines were dug and built the environment was not a concern the mineral deposits were to be exploited and money was to be made. Most of the mines date from the boom of the 1880s (before the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase act) The pollution is only a post production externality of the mining. (Of course the water is not contaminated with human waste which I suspect if you went back to the boom times was the case). One here gets into the whole issue of judging with a different set of standards than were in place at the time the events happened.

  2. As a veteran of 26 years of work in the industry on the environmental impacts of mining, I endorse wholeheartedly John Fleck and Ms. Ogburn’s comentary of the spill at Silverton that contaminated the Animas River. This episode would not have happened if mining companies took responsibility for cleaning up their messes.

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