Sept. 16, 2015 12:00

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

This famous latin phrase translates to “who watches the watchmen?” and it’s exactly what everyone is now wondering about the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA has long been aggressive in their pursuit of wrongdoers. During disasters like the Exxon-Valdez oil spill, they have been relentless in their investigation of how an incident occurs, and who is at fault. No target is too large; they even investigated the U.S. Marine Corps over conditions at Camp LeJeune, North Carolina.

Think back to the time, only a few years ago, of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Talk about holding one feet to the fire—the EPA was dogmatic in its approach to this disaster, as it should have been. BP has now spent in excess of $70 billion to correct the balance of the environment, as well as reimburse private business for their losses.

This time, there is no mystery about the incident; the EPA itself caused the spill. The question is whether they will hold themselves to the same high standards to which they hold corporations. Another company found so clearly at fault would be forced to pay into the Superfund as compensation. If the EPA follows suit and pays into the fund from their budget, it will be tax dollars they’re using.

Now, as Colorado and New Mexico declare emergencies, Congressional representatives are coming down hard on the agency for being slow in responding to the disaster. The EPA’s response has been, at best, disjointed.

In addition, according to the Navajo Nation, officials from the EPA have been going door to door asking residents to estimate their damages. The forms offer to pay for estimated damages, but the recipient waives the right to ask for more if costs are higher than predicted, or further problems are discovered.

Given that the disaster in question is a heavy-metal spill, even an expert would only be able to guess at the extent of the damages. Asking a layperson to estimate their total costs before the agency has even completed their own preliminary estimations is preposterous.

Heavy metal poisons are characterized by the damage they can cause over the longterm, even in low doses. This spill released enough to turn the rivers yellowish orange, and even if the level of contaminants drops significantly over the next few weeks, there will still be danger. The heavy metals will remain on the river bottom, and every fresh rain will stir them up, periodically releasing more poison.

Given that the land around the river is used for farming, the longterm health risks and subsequent economic losses could be staggering. This event is, without a doubt, an unintentional tragedy for which the EPA has apologized. What remains to be seen is whether the agency will make it right. If they don’t do so in a thorough and open manner, we might be looking at a new age for the EPA. One where the watchmen are, in turn, watched.

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