Agency Breakdown

The British Petroleum Gulf of Mexico story is an eery reminder of our experience with the Formosa Silver Butte abandoned mine near Roseburg, Oregon. In 1993 and 1994, several tons of Formosa mine tailings sloughed into the Cow Creek drainage, a major tributary of the Umpqua River system. Aquatic life in 18 miles of salmon and steelhead habitat was destroyed.

According to EPA, Formosa continues “an annual discharge of approximately 5 million gallons of acid rock drainage [pH 2.9], containing up to 30,000 pounds of dissolved copper and zinc, along with other metals. Heavy metals concentrations in Middle Creek and the South Fork, and into Cow Creek, exceed aquatic life standards by a factor of between 10 and 100.”

Formosa shares with the Gulf of Mexico a legacy of agency neglect, intransigence, and infighting that quickly ripened into unnecessary and avoidable environmental and taxpayer liabilities.

* The Oregon Department of Environmental Equity (DEQ) issued water quality permits for Formosa operations but failed to make onsite inspections from 1989 until after the 1994 catastrophic event.

* DEQ and the mine owner tried several quick fix cleanups, including sealing mine wastes in mine workings; all failed.

* After promising to pay all clean-up costs, the foreign-owned mine operator filed for bankruptcy.

* DEQ paid private consulting firms more than $2 million for site analyses and engineering studies. Despite these expenditures, ten years after to the catastrophic event DEQ admitted the State had neither the resources nor the expertise to cleanup Formosa.

* In 2005 and 2006, the Center for Environmental Equity formally petitioned EPA to take jurisdiction for Formosa cleanup activities; EPA listed Formosa as a Superfund site in September 2007.

* BLM, a federal agency, will not allow EPA, a federal agency, access to Formosa-site BLM land. The reason: EPA has sufficient funds to conduct testing, but BLM does not have appropriated funds to reimburse EPA for testing expenses.

* Despite BLM intransigence, EPA refuses to declare BLM a potentially responsible party. EPA cites Obama White House direction and a Reagan Administration era Executive Order as reasons.

Only community activists unwilling to accept process as a substitute for action can break this cycle of federal and state agency abuse. The current White House, like its predecessors, seems incapable of even affixing financial responsibility to deter destruction of public resources.

LARRY TUTTLE is the Director of the Center for Environmental Equity in Portland, Oregon. He can be reachged at