When contractors working for the EPA loosed a flood of mine waste water from the Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado, on August 5, 2015, they created a perfect media monster: three million gallons of liquid, enriched with tailings of cadmium and lead, arsenic, beryllium, zinc, iron and copper tinted an unforgettable yellow.
It made for “holy cow!” news pictures and video and fulfilled two favorite themes of modern journalism…the government as The 3 Stooges…and Mother Nature as the Mother of all victims.
The images of workmen poking a hole and having first a squirt, then a gush, then a spout of awful smelly, yellow stuff aimed their way sounds straight out of a movie cartoon. Perfect meat for hard-eyed journalists and outraged critics flourishing their “gotchas” at a barely coherent sets of responders from the EPA.
And the media drink to accompany this filet mignon of government failure was tears, for an environment of dramatic natural beauty, with a long and exciting natural history, now despoiled. The river turned yellow, for goodness sake!
Of course, beneath the calculated outrage at a government trying to do go, doing bad; underpinning the dramatic lamentations for Paradise Lost was a reality that in many ways is defined by government failure and environmental degradation. It’s just that the reality is complicated, ambiguous, and part of a hundred-year history or successes and failures and profits and losses.
Jonathan P. Thompson is an award-winning freelance author, journalist and editor. He usually writes about the land, culture and communities of the American West, with an emphasis on energy development, pollution, land-use politics and economics. But he’s fascinated by the complexity of the world around him, and is happy to delve into almost any topic. He is the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster (Torrey House Press, February 2018) and is a contributing editor at High Country News.