For the last month and a half I’ve had the privilege to work for the Animas River Wetlands – a certified wetlands project just outside central Durango. The project is converting old hay fields back to their previous wetland state, filtering water for the Animas River that runs through downtown Durango. The Animas is a hot spot for Durango tourism and is held dearly in the hearts of those who live here.
If you recognize the name of the river that’s probably because you heard it on last night’s news, or the night before that. A week ago today the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) accidentally released 3 million gallons of mine water from the old 1800s Gold King Mine upstream in Silverton, CO. Thursday night that water reached Durango, turning the town’s beloved river a brilliant gold color and causing chaos.
When I arrived at work last Wednesday one of our employees was late. He called to say he had gotten a warning to close his ditch gate to water from the Animas – the EPA had accidentally released contaminated mine water into the river. When he finally arrived at work he showed us pictures on his phone of the river in Silverton – it was bright yellow (Click Here for some really interesting before and after pictures).
It looked like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. In fact, when I took the three year old I babysit to see it for the first time the next day the only terms I could think of to explain it to her were straight out of Seuss’s The Lorax:
They’re “glumping the pond where the Humming-Fish hummed! No more can they hum, for their gills are all gummed.”
The river contamination has been the talk of the town for the past week. There have been town meetings, numerous news reports, international news coverage. The governor was here yesterday, the CO Attorney General is here today. There’s a lot of hype, and among all the rumors and changes in information it’s hard to figure out the truth.
Here’s what I derived:
1. What actually happened: According to the Denver Post, the Gold King Mine has been eyed for clean up since 2005. Last Wednesday the EPA was at the site with heavy machinery when a plug failed. Originally, the EPA claimed the amount of water released was 1 million gallons, on Sunday they adjusted this number to three times that amount – a whopping 3 million gallons. As the water continued to flow from the mine over the weekend the EPA treated the water as it emerged. On Monday the Governor released $500,000 in funds for assistance. The City of Durango and La Plata County have declared states of emergency. The long lasting affects of the spill are still unknown.
2. Durango is no stranger to mining problems. This type of contamination has existed in this area as long as Colorado has existed. Buried in the mountains north of Durango are thousands of mines just like the Gold King Mine. When rain isn’t supplying the Animas with water, the rocks are. When water leaches through the rocks – through the mines – into the river it brings accumulated acids, minerals, and other mining materials with it. The Gold King Mine accident released a highly concentrated, large amount of this wastewater. According to Elizabeth Holley, assistant professor of engineering at the Colorado School of Mines, “The great news is that modern mining does not allow the release of these waters.” But up until 1977, there were few mining laws in Colorado. Many more of these old, closed mines still sit in the mountains – they are ticking time bombs at the mercy of our ability to clean them up as soon as possible.
3. The pollution is pretty bad. Some folks claim that calling this water “toxic” is incorrect. They argue that the materials in the mine were naturally created, though highly concentrated. This isn’t true. First, old miners used certain chemicals to extract the mineral resources. When underground water runs through a mine it picks up these chemicals. Furthermore, and maybe more importantly, this water creates sulfuric acid and dissolved iron when mixed with mineral pyrite – making highly acidic water that can be dangerous for aquatic species, especially trout. Recent testing of the water pollution in Durango show that the water contains high (possibly dangerous) levels of lead, arsenic, beryllium, cadmium and mercury.
4. The river wasn’t clean before now either. The Animas was by no means clean before this most recent spill. The Durango Herald states that from 2005-2010 three of the four species in the Upper Animas water basin disappeared. The Washington Post revealed that water flowing a few miles north of downtown Durango carried concentrations of zinc toxic to animals. Cleanup of these polluted waters has been delayed due to funding problems and the fear that labeling the area a “Superfund” site would harm tourism.
5. Durango will probably be OK… Sort of. I’ve gotten a lot of questions from family members about my safety. Luckily, Durango gets it water from Florida River, not the Animas. So the town has perfectly clean water. At the restaurant I work at a customer called to ask if our food was safe… yes, perfectly safe. However, those with wells outside the city (as many as 1,000) could experience toxic contamination. Economically, Durango will also struggle. Rafting of the Animas is one of the town’s biggest sources of income, currently the river is off limits to any recreation. Farmers will also face hardship. Yesterday at work my boss was busy bringing clean water from our separate source (a waterfall) to farmers who usually use the Animas to water their livestock.
As the plume continues down stream to NM and the Navajo Nation we will see more and more negative stories. This spill is terrible, but it has brought into light the massive conversation of mine contamination. Thousands of ticking time bombs, just like the Gold King Mine, are sitting in the mountains leaching and threatening to burst.
As Dr. Suess would say,
Unless someone like you
cares a whole awful lot,
nothing’s going to get better.
But from all the news coverage it appears there’s a lot of people caring a whole awful lot. We need to do something about it, and maybe with all this news coverage, and all this passion, we can do something big about it.