If there is one thing that we understand in the workers’ compensation business, it is that accidents happen on the job; and when they happen people sometimes get hurt. Still, even in the environment where we are accustomed to errors and incidents in the workplace, we don’t normally have to deal with colossal mistakes that affect thousands of people.

No, for that, it seems, we need the Environmental Protection Agency.

I took a few days off last week to visit family in Durango, Colorado, where I was raised. I awoke at my sisters house the morning after my arrival only to find my brother in law in the kitchen telling us we needed to go down to the river below their property to see something “like we had never seen before”. I had no idea what he was talking about, until he explained that the river, the Animas, had been fouled by an accident 50 miles to our north. The EPA had been investigating potential leaking of contaminated waste from the closed Gold King Mine Near Silverton, CO. Their “probing” with heavy machinery inadvertently caused a collapse of a retention area, and over 1,000,000 gallons of toxic waste spilled out into Cement Creek, which empties into the Animas. The river as a result was an intense and thick orange color. It was an event that made national news.

For those of us who were raised in this area, it was a heartbreaking sight. As a child I fished that river many times, as it is an excellent source of both Brown and Rainbow Trout. What is most troubling for Durango residents today is the relative lack of information available about what may be in the river, and what the ultimate damage may be. For the short term residents are being asked to conserve water, since the Animas provides most of the fresh water for the town. People, including a number of rafting companies in town, have been ordered off the river. Concern for crops, livestock and wildlife represent much longer term issues. 

Of course, Durango residents are not the only ones impacted by this accident. The Animas flows into New Mexico and through two more towns before it empties into the San Juan River. From there it is into Lake Powell and the Colorado River. Next stop, Los Angeles and Southern California. Thousands upon thousands of people may be affected by this; but to what extent is still not known. 

Who will be held accountable for this has not been made clear. The EPA has essentially acknowledged that it was their probing actions that caused the break in the retention pond. If a private corporation had done that, there would be a plethora of lawsuits and massive government fines.

Who will fine the EPA?

Not every industrial accident ends up resulting with injured workers. Not every incident will produce a workers’ compensation claim. In this case no individual was physically hurt when the retention wall burst. Still, there are likely to be plenty of people hurt economically from what is being called by local press a “catastrophe”. It is a reminder that people beyond the scope of the job may be affected by accidents that happen in the workplace, whether it be a factory floor or an old abandoned mine.  

As for now, we all wait to see what accountability will be proffered to appease the many angered and affected. For some, whatever it may be will likely not be enough. We should be thankful no one was directly injured in the incident, but that is not on the mind of most in the Southwest today. That is a price you pay when your on the job boo boo affects thousands.

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