The gory details of the orange-colored toxic chemical spill 10 days ago into the Animas River in Colorado — more than 3 million gallons of water from an abandoned mine — are a colorful reminder of how quickly our environment can be catastrophically damaged.
Imagine for a minute a bright orange surface on Seneca Lake.
Now try to forget it.
The EPA-induced spill started out as a well-meaning attempt to stanch a leak from a century-old gold mine into a creek. The EPA staff members used a backhoe to probe what they erroneously thought was a solid area in search of the source of the water.
Instead they unleashed a gusher of orange-colored fluid laced with heavy metals that makes the water unfit for drinking — or probably anything else. The toxic plume wound its way from Colorado, into the San Juan River past Farmington, N.M., and on to the Colorado River in Utah.
Tragically, the water deposited sediment along the way laced with lead, arsenic, beryllium, cadmium and mercury, EPA water samples show.
It is particularly ironic that the EPA caused the spill while attempting to clean up a mess left behind by industry.
It reminds me of that old saw, “No good deed goes unpunished.”
It’s also a reminder that government agencies, even those charged with protecting the environment, can make colossal errors in judgment.
For a New York example, recall last winter’s state Department of Environmental Conservation’s cheerleading of a proposal by Crestwood Midstream of Texas to store 88 million gallons of liquid propane gas in unlined salt caverns adjacent to Seneca Lake.
At the DEC issues conference in February, DEC staff was so effusively deferential to Crestwood’s attorneys — and so dismissive of issues and legal points raised by opponents — that the audience questioned whether the DEC was working for the Texas corporation or for New York taxpayers.
It didn’t matter what issue was raised: Lake water salinity, the documented salt cavern roof collapse, negative impacts on the tourism and wine industries, or even the likelihood of a major railway catastrophe.
The DEC waved away concerns as insubstantial.
Insubstantial? Sure, like that small water leak in Colorado that now has rivers running orange.
But the citizens of the Finger Lakes are proving smarter.
The Onondaga and Wayne County Legislatures, along with and the Lyons Town Board recently voted to oppose the Crestwood proposal, bringing the total local government opposition to 31 entities representing 1.2 million residents.
Even the Hector Town Board in Schuyler County, which sits directly across the lake from Crestwood’s ground zero, sent a strongly worded letter to the DEC, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the Schuyler County Legislature and the county emergency management office.
What tweaked the Hector board was reviewing an accident scenario that could be the basis for a disaster movie script. It outlines the effects of an LPG railcar derailment from the aged train trestle spanning the Watkins Glen State Park Gorge.
“We feel it is a dereliction of duty by the NYS DEC, Schuyler County Emergency Management and the Schuyler County Legislature to even allow the possibility of this situation to occur,” the Hector letter says. “There seems to be no attempt by any one of these agencies mentioned to mitigate the risk to public safety.”
When those elected, appointed and employed don’t adequately protect us — and the environment — citizens have a responsibility to step up and speak up, as many have in the last five years.
They all want to protect Seneca Lake, the jewel that provides drinking water for 100,000 people, home for many species of fish, birds and other wildlife, recreation for millions and a winter weather pattern that makes wine grape growing successful.
Imagine it a bright orange color.
Fitzgerald worked for six newspapers as a writer and editor as well as a correspondent for several news services. He recently published his second novel, “Fracking Justice” and lives in Valois and Watkins Glen with his wife. His “Write On” column appears Fridays. He can be contacted at Michael. Fitzgeraldfltcolumnist@gmail.com.