#AnimasRiver: “Not only is this an environmental crisis, but it is a crisis in poor governance” — Hector Balderas

This image was taken during the peak outflow from the Gold King Mine spill at 10:57 a.m. Aug. 5. The waste-rock dump can be seen eroding on the right. Federal investigators placed blame for the blowout squarely on engineering errors made by the Environmental Protection Agency’s-contracted company in a 132-page report released Thursday [October 22, 2015]
This image was taken during the peak outflow from the Gold King Mine spill at 10:57 a.m. Aug. 5. The waste-rock dump can be seen eroding on the right. Federal investigators placed blame for the blowout squarely on engineering errors made by the Environmental Protection Agency’s-contracted company in a 132-page report released Thursday [October 22, 2015]

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

New Mexico launched a legal fight against the EPA and owners of a Colorado gold mine Monday, demanding action, contending the Gold King disaster caused catastrophic harm to downriver people, aquatic insects and fish.

“Not only is this an environmental crisis, but it is a crisis in poor governance. … Governments need to be accountable to neighboring communities as well as their own community,” New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas said after filing a lawsuit in federal court.

The lawsuit does not specify monetary damages, but state attorneys said New Mexico is entitled to at least $7 million to reimburse communities for emergency expenditures after the disaster and for independent, third-party monitoring of water quality. In addition, the attorneys estimated New Mexico suffered economic harm of $140 million.

It spares Colorado, for now. Balderas said he’s “having a conversation” with Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman and hopes legal issues between the states can be resolved.

EPA officials declined to comment on the lawsuit, but agency officials said the EPA has paid $1.3 million to help New Mexico cover costs related to the disaster. Coffman declined to comment.

The lawsuit contends New Mexico, tribes and Utah suffered catastrophic damage from the EPA-triggered Aug. 5 spill into Animas River headwaters, a “sickly yellow plume of contamination” that flowed out of southwestern Colorado into New Mexico, the Navajo Nation, Utah and eventually Lake Powell atop the Grand Canyon.The spill damaged water that is the lifeblood of downriver communities’ economy and culture with devastating impact, the lawsuit said.

It demands tougher water-quality testing — using “the highest testing standards that the EPA would impose in any other state in the nation” — by someone outside the EPA.

Compensation would go for remediation and to help agricultural and cultural communities that depend on the river for irrigation and drinking water. “They must be properly compensated and there must be appropriate independent monitoring to prevent future dangers to public health and the economy,” the lawsuit said.

New Mexico blames the plugging of the Sunnyside Mine, currently owned by Kinross Corp., as the root cause of the Gold King disaster because this action backed up acidic, metals-laden water, causing water levels to spread to nearby mines, including the Gold King Mine. The lawsuit also targets Environmental Restoration, the EPA’s contractor, involved in work to try to drain the Gold King when workers accidentally caused a blowout.

From The Farmington Daily Times (Noel Lyn Smith):

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas filed the complaint today on behalf of the New Mexico Environment Department in U.S. District Court in Albuquerque.

The EPA has admitted responsibility for the Aug. 5 mine blowout. Employees of an EPA contractor, Environmental Restoration, released millions of gallons of mine waste laced with heavy metals into the Animas and San Juan rivers during a cleanup operation. The plume carried more than 880,000 pounds of toxic metals including lead, cadmium, copper, mercury and zinc through state and tribal lands.

In addition to the EPA, the lawsuit names EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, Environmental Restoration, Kinross Gold Corp., Kinross Gold USA Inc. and Sunnyside Gold Corp.

New Mexico is demanding the defendants “abate the imminent and substantial threats” from the Sunnyside Mine network and remediate residual contamination from mine releases. The state is also seeking compensation for environmental and economic damages.

The complaint alleges the state is experiencing “enormous economic losses” because of the spill.

“The indelible images of a mustard-hewed toxic plume meandering downstream – into the habitat of several endangered species and superb sport fishing and recreational grounds – will linger long after the visible impacts of the release have vanished,” the complaint states.

The “lingering stigma” will result in reduced economic activity and a decline in taxes, fees and income because of lost tourism, fishing and land use, according to the complaint.

State Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn said the federal Tort claim notice filed this month included an estimate the state has suffered and will suffer $130 million in lost income, taxes, fees and revenues.

In a telephone interview Monday, Flynn said the department tried to work with the EPA to address ongoing concerns — including monitoring heavy metals levels in the river — but were unable to resolve those matters.

“We tried over seven months to pursue a diplomatic path forward,” he said adding the agency has to be accountable for its promises to address the spill and its aftermath.

A press release from the attorney general’s office states New Mexico and the EPA have been unable to “mutually agree” on a monitoring plan that “appropriately protects” state and tribal lands.

“It is inappropriate for the EPA to impose weak testing standards in New Mexico and I am demanding the highest testing standards that the EPA would impose in any other state in the nation to protect the health and well-being of our citizens,” Balderas said in the release.

In a statement emailed to The Daily Times Monday, EPA Region 6 spokesman David Gray said the agency takes responsibility for the cleanup and has been working to reimburse response costs and provide funding for monitoring plans developed by state and tribal governments.

“EPA’s longstanding practice has been not to comment on pending litigation filed by external parties,” Gray said.

He added the EPA has paid approximately $1.3 million in reimbursements and monitoring costs for New Mexico. Other funding has been distributed to Colorado, Utah, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, the Navajo Nation and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.

Louie Diaz, spokesman for Kinross, said in an email Monday that Kinross and Sunnyside Gold were not involved and have no responsibility regarding the mine spill.

The complaint names Kinross Gold Corp., through its subsidiary Kinross Gold USA, as owner of the Sunnyside Mine and neighboring properties near Silverton, Colo.

“Kinross and Sunnyside never owned or operated the Gold King Mine. We will vigorously defend ourselves from this legal action,” Diaz said.

The 51-page complaint asks the federal court to declare the defendants liable under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act for all costs incurred by New Mexico for its response to the releases or threatened releases of hazardous substances from the Gold King Mine and two additional locations, which are also mine sites in the mountains above Silverton.

The court is being asked to declare the named mining companies and EPA contractor in violation of the “imminent and substantial endangerment” provision in the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

The contractor, Environmental Restoration, did not return calls seeking comment today.

In addition, it requests EPA Administrator McCarthy to find a way to moderate pollution from inactive and abandoned mines in Colorado that discharge acid mine waste water into the Animas River.

New Mexico is asking the court to declare the mine owners and EPA contractor “negligent, grossly negligent or both” and award the state compensatory, consequential and punitive damages.

The complaint comes months after the state announced its intent to sue the EPA, the owners of the Gold King and Sunnyside mines, and the state of Colorado, which was not named in Monday’s complaint.

James Hallinan, spokesman for the attorney general’s office, said the state is still attempting to resolve issues with Colorado. Letters obtained by The Daily Times sent by Balderas to the EPA and the Colorado attorney general last week detailed some of the state’s problems with responses to the spill.

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye said the tribe will support New Mexico in its action and the tribe will closely monitor the lawsuit.

The president added the economic and environmental impacts and losses related to the spill, including abandoned crops, “heavily affect” the tribe, and the EPA has yet to reimburse those Navajo farmers and ranchers.

“The U.S. EPA has yet to provide significant clean-up along the river banks and in the river beds. The Navajo Nation is still very concerned that the contaminants will continue to migrate down river, particularly when there is a spike in the flow of the river,” Begaye said.

The orange plume flows through the Animas across the Colorado/New Mexico state line the afternoon of Aug. 7, 2015. (Photo by Melissa May, San Juan Soil and Conservation District)
The orange plume flows through the Animas across the Colorado/New Mexico state line the afternoon of Aug. 7, 2015. (Photo by Melissa May, San Juan Soil and Conservation District)

From the Associated Press (Susan Montoya Bryan) via The Columbian:

The federal lawsuit says the environmental effects of the August 2015 spill are far worse than claimed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. New Mexico wants to be paid back for its immediate response to the disaster and receive funding for long-term monitoring, lost revenue and a marketing campaign to undo the stigma left behind by the bright-yellow plume of arsenic, lead and other heavy metals that fouled rivers in three Western states.

“The liability is crystal clear. The facts speak for themselves, and EPA for whatever reason is unwilling to resolve this outside of court,” New Mexico Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn told The Associated Press. “We’re going to do what we need to do to make sure New Mexicans are protected and compensated for the harm caused.”


Balderas said the spill has had a devastating effect on communities and that the federal agency should be held to the same standards it would impose on private interests accused of polluting.

“Remediation and compensation dollars have been far too minimal for these very special agricultural and cultural communities who depend on this precious water source for irrigation and drinking water,” Balderas said. “They must be properly compensated and there must be appropriate independent monitoring to prevent future dangers to public health and the economy.”

The EPA typically declines to comment about pending litigation but a spokeswoman said last week that the agency was taking responsibility for the cleanup…

A notice sent this month to the EPA outlined the damage and argued that heavy metals in the Animas and San Juan rivers remain at levels that “present unacceptable risks to health and the environment.”

Attorneys for New Mexico argue that the spill was preventable and that the EPA had been warned about a potential blowout nearly a year before the incident.

The state also contends its offers to lead a regional long-term monitoring project to better understand the damage and the prospects of future contamination flowing down the river system have been repeatedly rebuffed by the EPA.

The agency offered $2 million to states and tribes affected by the spill for monitoring, but New Mexico officials say that’s only a fraction of the more than $6 million that would be needed for adequate monitoring in the state.

New Mexico also estimates the spill is costing the state $130 million in lost income taxes, fees and revenue. Officials have pointed to reduced tourism, fishing and land use throughout the region.

From Colorado Public Radio (Grace Hood):

The state sued the Environmental Protection Agency, contractor Environmental Restoration LLC, and owners of the Gold King Mine as defendants. It’s the first state to take this kind of legal action…

New Mexico officials say that about $130 million would go toward economic damages, $17 million would be spent on a marketing fund to promote the state’s image, and $6 million would be spent on long-term water quality monitoring. About $1 million would help recoup emergency response costs at the time of the spill.

New Mexico isn’t the only state struggling with covering costs associated with the spill. La Plata County, in Colorado, reports a deficit of nearly $185,849 spent on wages, benefits and water quality monitoring since the spill. San Juan County reports that it’s seeking reimbursement for $357,363 for spill-related expenses through Feb. 29, 2016.

Animas River through Durango August 9, 2015 photo credit Grace Hood
Animas River through Durango August 9, 2015 photo credit Grace Hood

From The Albuquerque Journal (Ollie Reed Jr.):

In a lawsuit filed Monday in federal court, Attorney General Hector Balderas and the New Mexico Environment Department cite economic setbacks and environmental damage suffered by the state after more than 3 million gallons of toxic waste was dumped into the river.

It demands reimbursement of $889,327 for short-term emergency-response costs paid by the state, more than $6 million to pay for long-term monitoring of the Animas and San Juan rivers and $130 million for lost income, taxes, fees and revenues suffered by the state because of the spill.

“The river only flows one way,” said Ryan Flynn, New Mexico environment secretary. “Trouble could still be coming for New Mexico. We have been pushing for a monitoring effort since October. Our concept is $6 million plus and five years of comprehensive monitoring that would give us a firm grasp of what is happening in the watershed. All EPA has said is we will give you is $465,000. That just doesn’t cut it.”


Flynn said efforts to resolve issues with the EPA outside of court have proved fruitless.

“I couldn’t tell you what EPA is thinking,” Flynn said. “EPA seems totally unwilling to resolve this in a collaborative manner.”

Among the major impasses between New Mexico and the EPA has been appropriate screening levels for contaminant metals such as lead.

Flynn said the EPA wants to impose a recreational standard that would be safe for hikers and campers, but New Mexico believes the much more strict residential standard should be applied because people live along the affected rivers in New Mexico.

“There are a lot of people whose homes are right on the river or who use the river for a lot more than kayaking,” Flynn said.

Balderas agrees.

“It is inappropriate for the EPA to impose weak testing standards in New Mexico, and I am demanding the highest testing standards that the EPA would impose in any other state in the nation to protect the health and well being of our citizens,” Balderas said. “Additionally, remediation and compensation dollars have been far too minimal for these very special agricultural and cultural communities who depend on this precious water source for irrigation and drinking water. They must be properly compensated, and there must be appropriate independent monitoring to prevent future dangers to public health and economy.”

The EPA does not comment on pending litigation filed by outside parties. But in a statement released Monday, the EPA said the agency takes responsibility for the mine spill cleanup and has been working to reimburse response costs and fund tribal and state monitoring plans as well as conduct its own monitoring of the Animas and San Juan rivers.

“EPA has funded about $1.3 million in reimbursements and monitoring cost for New Mexico to date,” the EPA statement said. “We continue to review documentation and applications for different entities in the state and will expedite payments. New Mexico has $7.1 million available in unallocated federal funds – of which $108,000 has already been approved – to fund real-time monitors in the river.”


Flynn said the EPA has paid back more than $700,000 of the emergency-response money New Mexico shelled out dealing with the spill, but that the state is seeking another $800,000-plus from the federal agency to cover those costs.

New Mexico also wants $130 million to pay for economic losses it attributes to the mine spill.

“We asked our analyst to be as conservative as possible,” Flynn said. “But there is stigma associated with this region due to the yellow river.”

He said that stigma had hurt New Mexico in revenue lost because kayakers, fishermen, hikers and other outdoorsmen have sought other places to enjoy outdoor recreation, tourists have selected other vacation destinations and consumers of agricultural products have looked elsewhere for their purchases.

“The facts speak for themselves,” Flynn said. “They (EPA) are clearly at fault. At the end of the day the law is on our side. EPA is now on the other side of the law it has been fighting to enforce for so many years.”

Cement Creek aerial photo -- Jonathan Thompson via Twitter
Cement Creek aerial photo — Jonathan Thompson via Twitter

From The Durango Herald (Sue McMillin):

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in New Mexico, names the EPA and its administrator, Gina McCarthy, Environmental Restoration, LLC, Kinross Gold Corp., Kinross Gold U.S.A. Inc., and Sunnyside Gold Corp. as defendants. Kinross is the parent company of Sunnyside.

Along with seeking compensation for environmental and economic damages related to the Aug. 5, 2015, Gold King Mine spill, the lawsuit “demands that the Defendants abate the imminent and substantial threats emanating from the mines in Colorado, and remediate residual contamination from the Gold King Mine releases in New Mexico’s surface waters and sediments.”

James Hallinan, communications director for the New Mexico Office of the Attorney General, said he could not comment on open litigation, but the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office is in “ongoing communication” with the state of Colorado over the Gold King spill. The state of Colorado and the owner of the Gold King Mine were not named in the lawsuit filed Monday, although in March the New Mexico Environment Department filed notice of its intent to sue those parties as well.

Colorado Attorney General Office spokeswoman Erin Lamb declined to comment on the lawsuit.

A spokesman with Kinross Gold Corp. responded in an email to a request for comment: “Kinross Gold and Sunnyside Gold were not involved and have no responsibility regarding the incident on August 5th, 2015 and Kinross and Sunnyside never owned or operated the Gold King Mine. We will vigorously defend ourselves from this legal action.”

The lawsuit claims the “root cause” of the disaster dates back more than 20 years to Sunnyside Gold’s attempt to block acid mine drainage by building bulkheads in drainage tunnels below the mine. The owners of the Gold King and Sunnyside mines have disputed the source of the wastewater buildup.

“These bulkheads impounded possibly billions of gallons of acid mine drainage and wastewater in Bonita Peak Mountain and caused the water to flood several adjacent mines,” the complaint says. It accuses Sunnyside Gold of using the mountain to store its waste rather than properly treating it.

General view of the Sunnyside Mine, southwestern Colorado photo via the Denver Public Library
General view of the Sunnyside Mine, southwestern Colorado photo via the Denver Public Library

From The Durango Herald (Mary Shinn):

A federal grant will fund an economic development coordinator to help Silverton and San Juan County businesses during the potential Superfund cleanup of historic mines.

“They are totally reliant on tourism, and we don’t know how that will be impacted,” said Laura Lewis Marchino, the deputy director of the Region 9 Economic Development District.

The U.S. Economic Development Administration is providing about $115,600 to pay a coordinator for two years and cover expenses such as marketing materials and travel, Marchino said.

The coordinator will be focused on supporting existing businesses through the federal cleanup of the Bonita Peak Mining District, which could include 48 mine-related sites.

The mining district was recommended for a Superfund listing in April following the Aug. 5 mine blowout, and the proposed designation is nearing the end of a 60-day comment period.

Easing the housing shortage when Superfund workers come to town will likely be another priority for the coordinator, she said.

During the construction of the temporary water-treatment plant near the Gold King Mine, there was not enough housing, she said.

The town needs more rentals so that hotel and motel rooms aren’t used as permanent housing.

The five-member San Juan Development Association Board that includes representatives from the town of Silverton, San Juan County, the Silverton Chamber of Commerce and Region 9 will hire the new coordinator.

Region 9 will manage the two-year grant, and Marchino would like to have the position filled by late summer.

“We needed to do what we could to help,” she said.

Silverton, Colo., lies an at elevation of 9,300 feet in San Juan County, and the Gold King Mine is more than 1,000 feet higher in the valley at the left side of the photo. Photo/Allen Best
Silverton, Colo., lies an at elevation of 9,300 feet in San Juan County, and the Gold King Mine is more than 1,000 feet higher in the valley at the left side of the photo. Photo/Allen Best

#AnimasRiver: #NM slighted in #GoldKingMine spill aftermath?

The orange plume flows through the Animas across the Colorado/New Mexico state line the afternoon of Aug. 7, 2015. (Photo by Melissa May, San Juan Soil and Conservation District)
The orange plume flows through the Animas across the Colorado/New Mexico state line the afternoon of Aug. 7, 2015. (Photo by Melissa May, San Juan Soil and Conservation District)

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

On the second and final day of a mining conference in Farmington, a question borne out of mounting frustration was raised by a New Mexico representative: “Are we going to benefit from Colorado’s Superfund designation? And if not, do we have to apply?”

The inquiry, posed by Rich Dembowski, chairman of the New Mexico Gold King Mine Citizen’s Advisory Committee, stems from lingering resentment that as the Environmental Protection Agency and Colorado pursue the federal hazardous cleanup program, New Mexico, and its concerns, are being ignored.

Dennis McQuillan, chief scientist of New Mexico’s Environmental Department, said requests for an informational meeting about the Superfund listing in New Mexico have gone unanswered by the federal agency.

Yet when New Mexico officials see EPA hearings scheduled in Silverton, Durango and Ignacio, McQuillan said it feels like an outright slight toward downstream interests.

“It’s a reoccurring theme – we’re not treated like stakeholders down here because we’re not in Colorado,” he said. “We’re basically forgotten. But we are stakeholders. Our people use the water.”

For two days, researchers from New Mexico and Native American tribes pored over the science behind the spill, the highly mineralized Silverton mining district, and the possible short and long-term effects of sediment loading in the Animas and San Juan rivers.

McQuillan said the conference was a bit of an attempt to play catch-up to years of research well-known in Southwest Colorado through groups such as the Animas River Stakeholders Group. He hopes next year’s conference will have more data to compare.

“I think the Gold King spill brought a lot of attention to the existing situation down here,” he said.

“We have this shocking visual of yellow river, and yet the issue’s been around a long time.”

E.coli Bacterium
E.coli Bacterium

McQuillan said instead, the state environmental department has been more concerned over the high levels of E. coli found in the stretches of the Animas and San Juan rivers within New Mexico, which pose a more immediate risk to human health.

“The Gold King spill took a lot of the attention away from that issue that’s still out there,” he said. “That’s why we need a holistic approach to the entire watershed. Maybe this single event will cause that holistic response.”

The EPA listed 48 mining-related sites in its Superfund proposal, all around the Silverton area. However, New Mexico officials maintained Wednesday a real cleanup of the watershed should include other contaminating sites from Silverton to Lake Powell.

“The elephant in the room right now is we don’t trust the government, and that’s focused at the EPA,” Dembowski said. “Why aren’t they answering questions?”

New Mexico officials claim the EPA hasn’t justified important data, such as metal levels in the water returning to pre-spill conditions, and failed to answer simple questions about the temporary water-treatment plant, which led the state to file a Freedom of Information Act request.

San Juan County Commissioner Kim Carpenter, who referred to the post-Gold King spill world as “hell,” made it clear he too is no fan of the EPA.

“There’s a lot of resentment over the mine spill,” he said.

“In every state there’s a fight about water. And sometimes we overlook the fact we have to fight for what we have, not just what we want.”


However, Carpenter said New Mexico communities along the Animas and San Juan watershed are “at the mercy of where it all starts,” and for real cleanup efforts to begin, “the blaming has to stop.”

Virginia McLemore, with the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources, begrudgingly agreed that although relationships between communities along the watershed might not historically be fair, they must work toward a shared goal.

“For years, Colorado gets the financial benefits, and we have to deal with the metal laden sludge,” she said. “But this is a problem that affects us all, and we have to trust the federal agencies will do their part.”

What can the American Dipper tell us about the #AnimasRiver? — The Durango Herald

The habitat of the American Dipper (Cinclus americana) is usually clear, rushing, boulder-strewn, mountain streams, within tall conifer forests. Photo via http://birdingisfun.com
The habitat of the American Dipper (Cinclus americana) is usually clear, rushing, boulder-strewn, mountain streams, within tall conifer forests. Photo via http://birdingisfun.com

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

It was John Muir’s favorite bird.

“He is the mountain streams’ own darling, the humming-bird of blooming waters, loving rocky ripple-slopes and sheets of foam as a bee loves flowers, as a lark loves sunshine and meadows,” he wrote in 1894.

On and off for 30 years, Muir, regarded as America’s most influential naturalist, noted the American Dipper in his explorations of Yosemite, and saw the bird as intrinsically tied with the life of the rivers.

“They scarce suggest any other origin than the streams themselves; and one might almost be pardoned in fancying they come direct from the living waters, like flowers from the ground.”

And now, more than 120 years later, a community reeling from a mine spill that has reinvigorated questions over the Animas River basin’s health will monitor the bird to gain a better understanding of the local watershed.

“I think the spill served to highlight we live in a really contaminated watershed,” said Kimberly Johnson, a volunteer with the American Dipper Project. “So a group of us bird aficionados got together to look at the river from a wildlife point of view.”


While the spill caused no immediate die-off of fish and other aquatic life, the heavy-metal laden sediment deposited in the river has raised concerns about the long-term health of aquatic species.

University of Saskatchewan biologist Christy Morrissey said the American Dipper – a bird she researched to earn her doctorate – is the “perfect indicator of water quality.”

“Basically, just the presence of dippers will indicate the suitability of the habitat. Then you can measure a lot of things, contaminate-wise, which are useful for understanding the effects of something like a mine spill.”

The American Dipper, a sooty gray bird with a tail that points upward, lives its entire life on a river, rarely straying more than a few meters from the fast-moving, cold water.

Weighing about 2 ounces, North America’s only aquatic songbird can dive and spend up to 30 seconds under water, upturning rocks for aquatic insects, such as stoneflies, mayflies and caddisflies, midges and even small fish.

Yet for how stalwart the bird is – it’s been noted to withstand negative 40-degree air temperatures in Montana – the avian diver is extremely vulnerable to instability in a river’s ecosystem.

Pete Marra, head of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, said if a dipper’s food source begins to decline, the bird has been known to decrease in numbers along rivers, and in some cases, completely abandon waterways.

In a reverse situation, after a dam in Washington was removed, Marra said a flailing population of dippers almost immediately rebounded as salmon were able to reach upstream and reproduce, thereby providing an essential food source for the bird.

“We used dippers to show how rapidly a river system can rebound,” Marra said. “But they can also be used as evidence of how contaminant releases affect ecosystems.”

A 10-month study on aquatic bugs, which are known to accumulate metals over time, will be released later this week, said Scott Roberts, an aquatic biologist with Mountain Studies Institute, which is part of a multi-year monitoring program on the Animas.

And while the institute and others look below the surface, a group of self-organized volunteers operating under the name The American Dipper Project will keep a lookout above this summer.

The project extends along the Animas from behind Home Depot all the way to Silverton. Volunteers are assigned a stretch of the river and asked to visit three times throughout the summer, for a minimum of 20 minutes.

“Not long enough to disturb but long enough to observe what they’re doing,” said Kristi Dranginis, an organizer and owner of Bird Mentor.

Dranginis said the project’s first-year goal is to identify where nests of the American Dipper are located along the Animas. And then in following years, since the bird is non-migratory, behavior such as reproduction can be further analyzed.

“There was a feeling after the spill of what can we do?” said Shelley Silbert, executive director of the Great Old Broads for Wilderness, which is supporting the effort. “This project offers people who are not scientists, or even really skilled bird watchers, to get involved and contribute.”

With no historical data on the bird, Dranginis hopes to correlate the dipper’s habitat with state and federal findings on metal levels. If a particular dipper’s behavior takes a downturn, the group would ultimately like to test the bird – either through blood or its feathers – for any abnormalities or bio-accumulations.

But that’ll be difficult, Morrissey said. Field studies are almost never sufficient to pinpoint the effect of contaminates on a species, she said, and other environmental factors further entangle research.

“That said, it’s additional evidence that’s supposed to get regulators info that can give some clues,” Morrissey said. “And if the pattern holds, even with variations, then you have a greater support for your hypothesis that it’s whatever the disturbance is that’s caused the problem.”

Bugs offer clues on #AnimasRiver health — #Colorado @TroutUnlimited

Macro Invertebrates via Little Pend Oreille Wildlife Refuge Water Quality Research
Macro Invertebrates via Little Pend Oreille Wildlife Refuge Water Quality Research

From Colorado Trout Unlimited (Randy Scholfield):

If you want some good clues about river health, check out the bug life.

Trout Unlimited, Mountain Studies Institute and partners today announced plans for a multi-year monitoring of the Animas River in southwest Colorado to gauge the overall health of the Animas River and whether the Gold King Mine spill in 2015 is impacting aquatic health in the world-class trout waters through Durango.

“We’re lucky that our community’s Gold Medal trout fishery wasn’t immediately damaged by the Gold King spill,” said Ty Churchwell, TU’s San Juan Mountains coordinator, in a release. “But long-term, it’s unclear what the effects of the spill might be. Trout Unlimited wants to make sure the aquatic health of the river—and specifically, its bug life—is closely monitored in coming months and years.”

Why look at bugs? Scott Roberts, aquatic biologist with MSI, pointed out that aquatic macroinvertebrate orders—such as mayflies, caddis and stoneflies—provide the foundation of the aquatic food chain, not just for trout but for a range of wildlife, from birds to mammals.

“Aquatic bugs are widely considered an excellent indicator of water quality,” said Roberts. “That’s because they live in the water column as well as river sediment. We’re going to learn a lot by seeing which bugs are doing well and which aren’t.”

Salmonflies (Pteronarcys), for instance, are present in the lower Animas watershed—a good sign because they are considered sensitive to pollution.

TU is committed to following up on the Animas spill in coming months and years and making sure the EPA and others in charge of cleanup don’t lose sight of the health of this amazing recreational fishery.

For more info, check out http://www.WeAreTheAnimas.com.

#AnimasRiver: #GoldKingMine spill study seeks participants — The Farmington Daily Times

The orange plume flows through the Animas across the Colorado/New Mexico state line the afternoon of Aug. 7, 2015. (Photo by Melissa May, San Juan Soil and Conservation District)
The orange plume flows through the Animas across the Colorado/New Mexico state line the afternoon of Aug. 7, 2015. (Photo by Melissa May, San Juan Soil and Conservation District)

From the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University via the Farmington Daily Times:

A study of the Gold King Mine spill being conducted by researchers from two universities is seeking participants from three communities on the Navajo Nation.

The research team is from the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University. The study was started last year with researchers collecting and testing water, sediment and soil samples from the portion of the San Juan River that flows through the communities.

This part of the study will focus on the short-term exposure and perception of risk of residents who were impacted by the mine spill, which saw the release of millions of gallons of toxic mine waste into the Animas and San Juan rivers last August, according to a press release.

Researchers are looking for enough participants to develop four focus groups in Shiprock and Upper Fruitland and in Aneth, Utah. Each group will consist of 10 individuals, and the names and identities of participants will remain private, the release states.

A series of community meetings to explain the study will be held for Shiprock residents at 10 a.m. Friday, at 6 p.m. Monday and at 6 p.m. Tuesday. Each meeting will be at the Shiprock Chapter house.

Meetings for Upper Fruitland residents will be at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Walter Collins Center and at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Upper Fruitland Chapter house.

The research team will also have meetings in Aneth, Utah, at 10 a.m. May 20-22 at the Aneth Chapter house.

For more information about the study, contact Karletta Chief, principal investigator, at 520-222-9801 or email her at kchief@email.arizona.edu.

How the #AnimasRiver disaster forced Silverton to face its pollution problem, and its destiny — The Colorado Independent

Silverton, Colo., lies an at elevation of 9,300 feet in San Juan County, and the Gold King Mine is more than 1,000 feet higher in the valley at the left side of the photo. Photo/Allen Best
Silverton, Colo., lies an at elevation of 9,300 feet in San Juan County, and the Gold King Mine is more than 1,000 feet higher in the valley at the left side of the photo. Photo/Allen Best

From The High Country News (Jonathan Thompson) via The Colorado Independent:

“Instead of a pure, sparkling stream of water, an opiate for tired mind and jaded nerves, what do you see? A murky, gray stream of filthy, slimy, polluted water, a cesspool for the waste of man.” —Durango-area farmer, 1937

On the morning of Aug. 5, 2015, a deep pool of acidic, metal-laden water was backed up behind debris in the Level 7 adit of the Gold King Mine on the slope of Bonita Peak, roughly 10 miles north of Silverton, Colorado. The pool had been rising for years, imprisoned in the dark of the mine, yearning, as all water does, to be free.

Outside, on the other side of the wall, a CAT excavator scooped jerkily at the debris and the slope. A few contractors and Environmental Protection Agency employees stood in the hard light of the high-altitude sun, watching.

For most of the summer, the crew had been working down the hill on the Red & Bonita Mine, putting in a concrete bulkhead to control the drainage of toxic water from its tunnels. In late July, workers moved on to the more challenging collapsed portal of the Gold King, which in recent years had become one of Colorado’s most polluting mines. Uncertain how to proceed, the EPA’s on-scene coordinator, Steve Way, postponed the job, pending a Bureau of Reclamation site inspection.

While Way was on vacation, however, his replacement, Hayes Griswold, a thick-necked, gray-haired man in his 60s, ordered work to proceed. He knew the risks. In May, the contractor on the job had noted, in the action plan, “Conditions may exist that could result in a blow-out of the blockages and cause a release of large volumes of contaminated mine waters and sediment.” In situations such as this, the typical first step would be to drill in from above to assess the mine pool’s depth and the pressure it exerted on the dirt and rock. Instead, apparently unsure about where the actual mine portal was, the crew burrowed into the debris.

Around 10:30 a.m., a thin stream of water spurted out, steadily growing into a fountain, then a roiling torrent of thick, Tang-colored water. As the workers looked on, stunned, the water roared over the edge of the mine waste-rock dump, carrying tons of the metal-laden material with it, crashing into the gently gurgling stream of the North Fork of Cement Creek, far below.

“Should we get out of here?” one worried worker asked.

“Oh, he’s going to be pissed,” another answered. “This isn’t good.”

“What do we do now?” someone else asked, shocked yet oddly calm, as though a household plumbing project had gone awry.

The workers avoided the deluge, but one of their vehicles, left below the jobsite, was submerged in orange slime. Farther downstream, along Cement Creek, the 3 million-gallon “slug” of water and sludge, laden with high concentrations of iron, zinc, cadmium and arsenic, roared past the old town site of Gladstone and another six miles to Silverton, where it cannoned into the waters of the Animas River.

It took about 24 hours for the prow of the slug to navigate the narrow, steep gorge below Silverton and reach the Animas River Valley, seven miles upstream from Durango, where I live.

I spent most of my childhood summers in, on or near the Animas, and often watched the river turn sickly colors: Yellowish-gray after the 1975 tailings pond failure; almost black when Lake Emma burst through the Sunnyside Mine three years later. Back during the 1950s, a uranium mill in Durango dumped 15 tons of radioactive goop into the river daily. Surely, I thought, as news of the catastrophe hit social media, this couldn’t be any worse than that.

Curious, I raced out to examine the river, at a place where the valley, scoured flat by glaciers some 10,000 years ago, slows the Animas to a placid flow. Turbid, electric-orange water, utterly opaque, sprawled out between the sandy banks, as iron hydroxide particles thickened within the current, like psychedelic smoke. Downstream, the Animas was empty, not a sign of Durango’s ubiquitous boaters, swimmers and partiers. For 100 miles along the river, irrigation intakes were shut. After nightfall, the plume slipped through town like a prowler and continued toward the San Juan River and New Mexico and Utah.

In the weeks and months that followed, there was plenty of pain to go around. Durango rafting companies lost hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of potential business. In the small fields of the Navajo Nation, along the San Juan River, corn shriveled without water. For many Navajo, the water is spiritually significant, and seeing it marred was heartbreaking, a bitter reminder of the many times they had borne the brunt of upstream pollution.

Most of the vitriol was directed at the EPA and its careless actions on Aug. 5. But others blamed a federal mining law that hasn’t been updated in 150 years. In Durango, though, most of the ire was directed at its upstream neighbor, Silverton, which had long resisted federal efforts to use the Superfund to clean up the hundreds of now-abandoned mines that gave birth to the town and sustained it for decades.

Like a cathartic purge, the Gold King disaster swept most of that resistance away.

In February, the town of Silverton and the San Juan County commissioners voted unanimously to request Superfund designation, carefully calling the site the “Bonita Peak Mining District,” to divert attention from Silverton and mitigate impacts to its tourist industry. In Durango, and even, to my surprise, in Silverton, there was a palpable sense of relief, a feeling that the whole region might finally move beyond its messy past, clean up the river for good and embrace the future.

But I had my doubts. Having watched the decades-long collaborative effort to clean up the watershed, I knew that the problem was too complex, the wounds too deep and stubborn to easily heal. And I knew that “The Mining Town That Wouldn’t Quit” was too deeply attached to its extractive past to easily refashion a shiny new identity from the rubble of the industry’s demise.

So I went upstream to dig up the real story behind the Gold King Mine disaster, a tale of a community, of mining and of water, and the inextricable way they are entwined.

Acid mine drainage may be the perfect pollutant. It kills fish, it kills bugs, and it lasts forever. And you don’t need a factory, lab or fancy chemicals to create it. All you have to do is dig a hole in the ground. [ed emphasis mine]

The hole — assuming it’s in a mineralized area — will expose iron sulfide, aka pyrite, to groundwater and oxygen. And when these collide, a series of atom-swapping reactions ensues. Oxygen “rusts” the iron in the pyrite, yielding orange iron oxides. And hydrogen, sulfur and oxygen atoms bond to create sulfuric acid, which dissolves zinc, cadmium, lead, copper, aluminum, arsenic and other metals. Naturally occurring, acid-loving microbes then feast on the metals, vastly accelerating the whole process. The acids in this bisque can devour iron pipes, and the toxic metals render streams uninhabitable, sickening fish for miles downstream. Once the process is catalyzed, it’s almost impossible to stop. A Copper Age mine in southern Spain, abandoned four millennia ago, pollutes the aptly named Rio Tinto to this day.

Mining not only indelibly alters a watershed’s hydrology and chemistry, it also forever shapes the identity of the communities around it.

Miners first started drilling, blasting and digging holes into the mountainsides of the Silverton Caldera, a 27-million-year-old collapsed magma chamber, in 1872. The San Juan Mountains were still officially the domain of the Utes, who for centuries had followed the game into the high country every summer. Silverton was founded in 1874, and that same summer the Hayden Survey came through, marveling at the complicated mass of mountains, among the last piece of the Lower 48 to be invaded, or even visited, by European-Americans. What they found was a wilderness we can only imagine today. One of the surveyors, Franklin Rhoda, wrote about how, on Uncompahgre Peak, “at an elevation of over 13,000 feet, a she grizzly, with her two cubs, came rushing past us,” and about huge herds of mountain sheep stampeding across rolling, wildflower-spattered highlands.

Less than a decade later, the railroad reached the caldera, opening the doors to humanity and its detritus. Giant mills crowded the valley floors, tramlines hung across meadows. The mountains’ innards were honeycombed with hundreds of miles of mine workings, which served as vast, subterranean acid mine drainage cauldrons. Steep slopes were stripped of their trees, the waters ran gray with mill tailings. The wild lands that Rhoda had marveled at were now industrialized, the grizzly on the run, the Utes pushed onto a sliver of land to the south.

On April 7, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed adding the “Bonita Peak Mining District” to the National Priorities List, making it eligible for Superfund. Forty-eight mine portals and tailings piles are “under consideration” to be included. The Gold King Mine will almost certainly be on the final list, as will the nearby American Tunnel. The Mayflower Mill #4 tailings repository, just outside Silverton, is another likely candidate, given that it appears to be leaching large quantities of metals into the Animas River. What Superfund will entail for the area beyond that, and when the actual cleanup will begin, remains unclear. Eric Baker
On April 7, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed adding the “Bonita Peak Mining District” to the National Priorities List, making it eligible for Superfund. Forty-eight mine portals and tailings piles are “under consideration” to be included. The Gold King Mine will almost certainly be on the final list, as will the nearby American Tunnel. The Mayflower Mill #4 tailings repository, just outside Silverton, is another likely candidate, given that it appears to be leaching large quantities of metals into the Animas River. What Superfund will entail for the area beyond that, and when the actual cleanup will begin, remains unclear.
Eric Baker

Despite Silverton’s wind-bitten perch at 9,318 feet, its isolation, inhospitable climate and lack of coal for fuel or arable land, the town blossomed. Homes sprouted across the floor of Baker’s Park, from Quality Hill to Poverty Flats. In the early 1880s, Greene Street, the main drag, was lined with businesses, from the Saddle Rock Restaurant and Stockman Barber Shop to the Wong Ling Laundry and Lewke Shoe Shop. Nearly every other hastily constructed facade was a saloon: Tivoli, Olympic, Occidental, Cohen and, surely the rowdiest, the Diamond, run by the notorious Bronco Lou, a “wily she-devil” and “enticing seductress,” who, it was rumored, killed as many as five lovers and husbands.

Silverton’s adolescent rowdiness ultimately mellowed (Bronco Lou was even run out of town), and the prosperity snowballed. At its 1907 peak, the mining industry employed more than 2,000 men — half the local population. The mélange of ethnicities fostered a rich culture, and the relatively stable flow of cash supported several newspapers, a healthy school, and strong government institutions, as well as a powerful miners’ union.

Ugliness could arise from the amalgamation, too. In 1906, a union-led mob drove the entire Chinese-American population from town. And after a protracted, bitter strike, a company-led mob drove the labor organizers from the caldera, killing the union for good. Still, the residents enjoyed an economic equality that seems these days to have gone extinct.

“It was a blue-collar town, but an upper-class blue-collar town,” remembers Bev Rich, a Silverton native, now in her mid-60s and chairman of the San Juan County Historical Society, easily the town’s most influential nonprofit. “It was a great place to grow up, because everyone’s dad worked in the mine and everyone was equal. The community was racially diverse, and it was safe.”

Yet it all hinged on one industry, mining, prone even then to the ups and downs of the national and global market. In 1924, the once wildly profitable Gold King, beleaguered by a string of disasters and bad management, went dark. The county’s biggest mine, the Sunnyside, shut down in the late 1930s, partly because of the cost of hauling ore and pumping water uphill to get it out of the mine. And in 1953, the only major operator remaining, the Shenandoah-Dives, also went quiet.

With the industry virtually dormant, Silverton struggled through what became known as the “Black Decade.”

The town clung to life, however, thanks in part to the silver screen’s mythical Wild West and a steam locomotive that had long hauled ore from Silverton to Durango’s smelter. The train itself became a movie star, along with Clark Gable and Barbara Stanwyck, and it began to haul tourists into Silverton, where they were greeted by a surrealistic spectacle — part Western movie-set, part Third World medina — that included elaborate fake gunfights. Loudspeakers blared advertisements and merchants swarmed passengers, begging them to buy hamburgers or tchotchkes.

Tourism kept the town afloat, but it was no replacement for mining. The pay was lousy, the season short, and it banked on what Bev Rich calls a false “rinky-dink, rubber tomahawk” version of history. “You develop a foul taste in your mouth when one of the gunfight participants says, as she walks away from the pile of bodies, ‘Everyone come to the Bent Elbow, the best food in town,’ ” noted a Silverton Standard editorial in 1963, summing up the sentiment of many locals.

So when Standard Metals announced in 1959 that it would re-open the Sunnyside Mine, the people of Silverton rejoiced. The plan was to extend the existing American Tunnel — started in the early 1900s but never finished — from the old town site of Gladstone two miles underground to the Sunnyside, where ore still lingered in the rock. It worked, leading a revival of mining that lasted for three decades.

Tourism continued to grow, though the locals accepted it grudgingly. “Prosperity stemming from mining is welcome,” Ian Thompson, my father, wrote in 1964 in theStandard. “Prosperity stemming from tourists is inevitable.” Miners, working underground, looked out for one another. Tourism, on the other hand, was a crassly commercial, dog-eat-dog world. Silverton was torn apart by these conflicting identities in a long-running, Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde struggle.

“The Train is the instrument of death,” George Sibley, a longtime western Colorado writer, wrote in the Mountain Gazette in 1975, referring not to the railroad itself but to the new economy it ushered in. “Among the miners, still the core of what remains of the Silverton community, there is an attitude ranging from bare tolerance to outright disgust toward The Train.”

Inevitably, though, global economics would triumph over local sentiment. Gold prices slumped, and massive open-pit mines in Chile and Nevada brought competition. By the mid-1980s, mining company bankruptcies were weekly headline fodder. Finally, in 1991, the Sunnyside shut down for good. One hundred and fifty miners lost their jobs, and Silverton lost its center. All that remained was a rich historic legacy — and the toxic water still draining from the mines.

Not long after the Gold King blowout, I sat down with Bill Simon at his earthen home north of Durango. Simon is an ecologist who has long worked to improve the environmental health of the Silverton Caldera. I first met him in 1996, when I was a cub reporter for the Silverton Standard & the Miner. Back then, Simon was leading the local effort to understand and tackle mine pollution, traipsing around the caldera, sampling streams and piloting a backhoe on remediation projects. Now, his old mop of brown hair is a roughly shorn gray, and he moves slowly and awkwardly. Simon has Parkinson’s, but its physical ravages have not affected his intellect. We talked for more than three hours, and it struck me that he carries a multidimensional map of the upper Animas watershed in his head, its geology, hydrology and history — even its politics. He’s as intent as ever on solving the caldera’s mysteries.

Simon was quick to remind me that Silverton’s pollution problem is relatively small on a global scale, paling in comparison to, say, the Bingham Canyon Mine outside Salt Lake City, which has created a 70-square-mile underground plume of contaminated groundwater, or California’s Iron Mountain Mine, the waters of which are some of the most acidic ever sampled outside the lab. More rock is scooped from a large-scale modern mine in a day than the Sunnyside Mine produced in a lifetime.

“So the problem of acid mine drainage is huge. It’s worldwide,” says Simon. “That’s why I got involved. The problem is being ignored.”

Simon’s involvement began incrementally back in 1970, when he first came to Silverton. Originally from Colorado’s Front Range, he attended the University of California, Berkeley, in the 1960s, where he helped found the Environmental Studies College and worked toward a doctorate in evolutionary ecology. After the military began taking “too much interest” in his work, though, he fled, landing in southwestern Colorado’s high country.

He worked for various mining companies, doing excavation or surface work and then big welding jobs, sometimes cleaning up a site or planting trees afterward. By then, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the state Division of Wildlife (now Colorado Parks and Wildlife) had pronounced most of the Silverton Caldera’s waters “dead,” thanks to natural mineralization, acid mine drainage and tailings spills. That’s why the wildlife agency had stopped stocking them with trout, a common practice in the state for decades. But Simon had noticed areas that he thought seemed fish-worthy.

So, when he became a San Juan County commissioner in 1984, Simon decided to test his theory, using fish as his guinea pigs and the watershed’s streams, beaver ponds and lakes as his laboratory. With a group of miners, who were also anglers, he hiked to backcountry waters carrying packs that held thousands of fingerling trout, donated by the state Division of Wildlife.

Even Simon was surprised by how many of those trout survived, including fish in seemingly sullied stretches of water. That meant that other stream segments might be able to support fish, too, if they were cleaned up. This realization ushered in Silverton’s next challenge — one that was less about the town’s economy or its historic past and more about ecology and the future.

Charged with enforcing the 1972 Clean Water Act, “the state health department took note,” Simon says, and began the process of setting water-quality standards for local streams. That made locals, Simon included, nervous. The state appeared to be working with incomplete data that did not account for natural sources of metal loading. That could result in unrealistic water standards, or even lead to the Silverton Caldera being designated under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, better known as Superfund.

The last thing most people wanted was to be declared the nation’s next Love Canal. Locals dreaded an invasion of federal bureaucrats who would end any possibility of hardrock mining’s return, because once a mine has been listed, no company will touch it. As an alternative, the state agreed to help the community form a consensus-driven organization called the Animas River Stakeholders Group, hiring Simon as its coordinator. “We figured we could empower the people to do the job without top-down management,” Simon explained, “and develop stewardship for the resource, which is particularly useful in this day and age.”

Members spanned the spectrum from environmentalists to miners. Some of them — such as Steve Fearn and Todd Hennis, past and present owners of the Gold King Mine — hoped to mine here in the future.

Fearn, in particular, believed that active mining could actually result in cleaner water in a place like Silverton, which was already pocked with abandoned, draining portals. Any new mining is likely to occur in existing mines (more destructive open-pit mining is not considered feasible here) where drainage is already a problem. Re-opening such a mine would require a discharge permit, as mandated by the Clean Water Act, and a plan for treating the drainage, bringing in a responsible party — a company — where none currently existed.

Working with a team of U.S. Geological Survey scientists and intent on identifying all the ingredients of the watershed’s acid-drainage chowder, Simon and other stakeholders took thousands of water samples, studied draining mine portals and natural springs, counted bugs and subjected fish to doses of metal and acid.

They found that the concoction was considerably more complicated than just a couple of spewing mines. Nature, it turns out, is the biggest polluter in the watershed. Some springs, untouched by mining, were as acidic as lemon juice or Coca-Cola, inhabited only by extremophilic microbes. About 90 percent of the aluminum and 80 percent of the copper in the middle fork of Mineral Creek was natural, a finding that jibed with Franklin Rhoda’s 1874 observation of a stream “so strongly impregnated with mineral ingredients as to be quite unfit for drinking.”

That didn’t let mining off the hook, however. Almost 400 of the nearly 5,400 mineshafts, adits, tunnels, waste dumps and prospects in the upper Animas watershed had some impact on water quality. About 60 were particularly nasty, together depositing more than 516,000 pounds of aluminum, cadmium, copper, iron and zinc into the watershed each year.

Notably, neither the Gold King nor the Red & Bonita were on the list yet. At the time, the Gold King was technically dry. No one knew that the mines would soon become two of the state’s biggest polluters — ironically, because of the very effort to clean up a neighboring mine.

When I first moved to Silverton, in March 1996, the town seemed like a jilted lover, abandoned by mining but yearning for its return. There were no tourists; people simply didn’t visit during the springtime. What was there to do but watch the thawing snow and ice retreat, revealing an interminable winter’s worth of dog turds and other junk? Most of the windows on the century-old buildings were boarded up, awaiting train season — the only economic season remaining.

Five years after the mine shut down, the impacts still rippled through the community. The year-round population was half what it had been a decade before, and the school was left with just 60 kids in grades kindergarten through 12. About a quarter of the county’s revenue, from production taxes, had vanished. That spring, the Sunnyside Mine’s owners cut a pollution deal with the state to release them from their water discharge permit and allow them to stop treating the water still leaking from the American Tunnel, paving the way for their eventual exit.

If I’d had any money, I could have picked up a run-down mining shack for less than $30,000. I was broke, though, so I rented a tiny room in the Benson Hotel, no cooking allowed. Because almost all year-round eating establishments had fallen victim to the mine closure and the seasonal tourist season, I regularly dined at the one remaining culinary option, the Miner’s Tavern’s microwave burritos notwithstanding: The Drive-In.

Most evenings that spring, after I’d sat down with my burger and fries, a tall man in his 70s came over and sat down across from me. Russ was a fixture at the Drive-In, though his role there was unclear. Between not-so-furtive swigs of Old Crow, he occasionally pushed a dust mop across the tiled floor, or wiped down a counter, or washed a plate. Mostly, though, he waxed nostalgic about the old days, when the streets were “full of men with boots,” and any able man could make a decent wage underground.

At the time, Russ struck me as an anachronism, a bourbon-soaked leftover from days long gone. I couldn’t comprehend how or why anyone would even entertain the notion that mining might return. It was time to move on. After all, Aspen, Telluride, Park City and even Moab had all abandoned their extractive past, welcomed the feds in to clean up the mess, and cashed in on the New West’s amenity-based economy. Give it five more years, I wanted to tell Russ, and you won’t even recognize this place. I may not have been entirely wrong, but I didn’t yet understand what might be lost in pursuing such a path.

Some time later, after dandelions had replaced the springtime slush in the yards of the old mining shacks, I sat outside Silverton’s first, and (at the time) only real coffee shop, the Avalanche, eating key lime pie with Dolores LaChapelle. She had come to Silverton in the 1970s with her then-husband Ed, one of a group of snow scientists who had descended on the caldera to study the potential impacts of cloud seeding on avalanches. Ed left, but Dolores stuck around, building a reputation as an author, scholar and pioneer of Deep Ecology.

I asked her what it was like to be someone like her, writing books about sacred sex, the earth and the rapture of deep-powder skiing in a hard-core mining town. “I just told people I was writing children’s books,” she replied, a nod to the mean streak often hidden in working-class towns. She was in her early 70s then, her face deeply lined, her trademark silver braid hanging over her shoulder, her brown eyes bright as ever.

Then she spoke about the particular strain of culture that mountains foster, and about how, in Silverton, that culture was, and still is, directly tied to mining. Tearing ore out of the earth mars the landscape and might poison the water irreparably, but, like farming, it also creates an unbreakable, visceral link between people and place. The entire community depended upon this relationship — abusive though it often was — with the earth. “It seems that mining was better than what we have now, in terms of culture,” Dolores said. “Now, a lot of people just want to ruin Silverton by making it into a tourist trap.”

I think Russ, in his own way, tried to tell me the same thing. He mourned the loss not just of jobs and money, but also of authenticity and, in a way, of identity. Mining is real, genuine, palpable; tourism is entertainment. The people of Silverton had little control over whether the Sunnyside’s absentee owner mined here or not. But they did have some say over how mining’s mess is handled. And by opposing Superfund, they believed, they were not fighting against clean water. Rather, they were exerting what little power they had over their own identity and culture and future.

A few years after I arrived, it looked as if the Animas River Stakeholders Group might actually get a handle on the caldera’s dirtier legacy, and all without the feds invading.

Fearn ramped up his mining plans, inspiring hopes for economic and cultural revitalization. He wanted to re-open the long-abandoned Silver Wing Mine, testing experimental water treatment methods, as well as the Gold King, which had last been mined in the late 1980s. He also planned to overhaul the Pride of the West Mill, which he would use not only to mill the ore, but also to process mine waste, both recovering metals and removing a source of pollution.

Meanwhile, Sunnyside Gold, after spending millions of dollars remediating its own mess and that of past miners, was finally ready to shut down for good. With state and federal funding, the Stakeholders had tackled a number of projects on their own, and, in cooperation with Sunnyside Gold, plugged some draining mines that were off-limits to the Stakeholders because of liability concerns. Those combined efforts were paying off, resulting in lasting improvements to water quality. No one knew then that within Bonita Peak’s byzantine plumbing system a yet more perplexing and vile mess was brewing.

In July 1996, some 6,500 feet into the dank, dark American Tunnel, one of the last remaining Sunnyside employees screwed shut the valve on bulkhead #1 — a concrete plug about the size of a boxcar — cutting off a stream of acidic water for good. Behind the plug, the labyrinthine shafts and tunnels of the Sunnyside Mine became a 1,200-foot-deep aqueous grave. Two more bulkheads were installed closer to the surface in 2001 and 2003, to stanch water pouring into the lower section of the tunnel through cracks and faults. Together, the three plugs stopped as much as 1,600 gallons per minute of acidic water, keeping 300 pounds per day of fish-killing zinc from Cement Creek and, ultimately, the Animas River. At least, that was the plan.

But in the early 2000s, tainted water started pouring out of the Gold King, which had gone almost dry when the first section of American Tunnel was built back in the early 1900s. By 2005, the Gold King had “started to belch out seriously,” says Simon. Suddenly, it was one of the worst polluters in the state. To make matters worse, the Sunnyside water treatment plant — transferred to Fearn in 2003 — closed at about the same time, when Fearn’s mining venture went broke, killing the best hope for cleaning up the new drainages. Water quality deteriorated. In the Animas Gorge below Silverton, the number of fish per mile dropped by as much as 75 percent, and where mottled sculpins and brown, rainbow and brook trout once flourished, only a few brooks remained.

It was a baffling plot twist in a long saga that was supposed to be nearing a tidy resolution. Clearly, the American Tunnel bulkheads were responsible. But no one knew for sure where the water was coming from — whether it was the Sunnyside Mine pool, or near-surface water returning to its historic path, or perhaps a bit of both. Until the mystery is solved, no one will know who’s really responsible and how best to handle the new drainage.

The Stakeholders knew that the most logical solution was another water treatment plant, like the one that operated for years at the Sunnyside. But finding the $10 million or so to construct it, and another $1 million per year to operate it, wasn’t easy. “We’d spent all of our money, plus we knew that we had limited abilities,” says Simon. “We didn’t feel comfortable checking these out on our own, so we invited the EPA to help.” That launched a process that revived old efforts to get a Superfund designation, and it also, ultimately, inadvertently led to the Gold King blowout, some 10 years later.

Silverton is no longer the town I stumbled into two decades ago. Both Russ and Dolores are gone. The Silverton Mountain ski area, a stone’s throw from the site of all the acid mine drainage action, has kick-started a fledgling winter tourist economy. Many of the town’s historic buildings have gotten makeovers, and you can now grab a decent bite to eat, even in the dead of winter. Those mining shacks that were $30,000 in the mid-1990s? They sell for 10 times that now. Like many mining-turned-resort towns, Silverton’s chock-full of vacant homes for most of the winter, but long-term rentals are either unavailable or too expensive for the locals — the average wage remains the lowest in the state, even worse than in the chronically depressed counties out on the eastern plains. The absence of a “basic industry” is deeply felt.

For a while, it seemed that this might change. In 2007, Todd Hennis, the current owner of the Gold King, brought an upstart company called Colorado Goldfields to town, buying the Pride of the West Mill and intending to pick up where Fearn had left off. The company put out slick brochures and optimistic videos and press releases, issued shares of stock like it was Monopoly money and pulled in investors, even a handful of locals, on news of rising gold prices. Hennis soon cut ties with the company, however, and ultimately sued, taking the Gold King off the table. And without ever extracting any ore, Colorado Goldfields faded away in 2014, taking with it shareholders’ cash along with another shred of hope that mining could return. When Superfund became inevitable, the rest of the hope fluttered out the window — almost.

This February, Fearn, who has been involved in mining ventures here for 40 years, told me that Superfund will surely kill the possibility of mining the Gold King ever again. But infected with the sort of chronic optimism endemic to mining country, he thought other mines, like his Silver Wing, still had a chance.

Yet Bev Rich, who for a time sat on Colorado Goldfields’ board of directors, remains doubtful. “Mining probably won’t return,” she told me. “We are two generations removed from that economy. We’re proud of our mining history. We wouldn’t be here without it. But global economics makes it almost impossible.” Besides, even if the industry did return, its effect on the community would surely be far different than before. It would bring money, yes, but culture, equality and diversity? Maybe not.

Instead, Rich thinks, Silverton should push a more viable industry: historic preservation, perhaps, or acid mine drainage research and remediation. She has long opposed Superfund designation, but now accepts it as inevitable. Like other local leaders, she worries about how the town will handle an influx of outside EPA contractors, given the rental shortage, and the added impacts to public services and infrastructure. Mostly, though, she’s concerned that cleaning up pollution might also wipe away the artifacts of mining’s history. After all, in many cases they are one and the same.

Last year, on a winter’s eve, a friend and I, visiting for Thanksgiving, headed out for a drink at one of Silverton’s local bars. Just a few weeks earlier, local elected officials had tentatively thrown their support behind a Superfund designation. A blanket of snow covered the ground, and another storm had settled in, along with the giddiness that comes when you know the snow might close the passes, trapping you for hours, maybe days, transforming the town into the solitary domain of extremophiles. Just before darkness, the world went cerulean blue in a way that is only possible in the mountains in winter.

“The Miner’s Tavern has got to be open,” I said. It had been years, but I knew what it would be like: The dim light shining down through a haze of cigarette smoke; Judy, with her raven hair and stiletto heels, running the pool table to her rival’s chagrin; Terry, who worked in the mines like his father, bellied up to the bar with his son, who never got the chance; Ernie holding court at the round table up front, with another elected official or three, tipsily deciding the fate of the town.

It was eerily quiet, and as we made our way down the empty main drag, all the shop windows were either boarded up or dark. Maybe everyone went home early, I thought. The last few years were tough, after all: Most of the cottage industries that sprouted before the national recession were gone, the community had been ripped apart by an ugly political battle and its heart was broken by a recent domestic homicide. To top it all off, the Gold King Mine blew out, and now the community was diving into the uncertain waters of Superfund.

We pulled up in front of the Miner’s Tavern and started to get out of the car before we noticed something amiss. The neon beer signs were dark. Through the window, we saw pool tables piled with junk, and the door was padlocked from the outside. Turns out Silverton Mountain Ski Area bought the entire Miner’s Union Hall, including the tavern and theatre upstairs, and made them into its office and, apparently, storage locker.

We continued on our futile search for an open bar, an open anything, and as snowflakes swarmed the streetlights like a million falling moths, I felt an ineffable sadness, and a nagging notion that Superfund, in this instance, somehow translated to surrender.

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Senior Editor Jonathan Thompson writes from Durango, Colorado.

This story was funded with reader donations to the High Country News Research Fund.

Cement Creek aerial photo -- Jonathan Thompson via Twitter
Cement Creek aerial photo — Jonathan Thompson via Twitter

#AnimasRiver: “The problem requires critical thinking, and most people won’t take the time to do that” — Brian Burke

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

Halfway through a public comment period, a mere five short responses have been posted regarding the proposed Superfund designation for the mining district north of Silverton…

In the wake of the blowout, impromptu emergency meetings lighted up with bombardments toward federal agents and impassioned calls for a swift and immediate cleanup of the river.

Social media transformed into a stomping ground for the concerned, the opinionated and the distrustful – an Aug. 6, 2015, Durango Herald report generated 404 comments. And months later, several Facebook groups cropped up, dedicated to the spill.

As alarmed anger transformed into serious conversations on how to address the long-standing problem of metal loading in the Animas watershed, an even more controversial prospect entered: a Superfund designation that had been opposed for nearly two decades by Silverton and San Juan County.

Yet pressure from downstream communities swelled. After much negotiation and discussion with the EPA, Superfund listing was sought by area and state officials. Labeled the Bonita Peak Mining District that includes 48 mining-related sites, a 60-day public comment period began on April 6.

But now, it seems the flood of convictions has subsided to a trickle of concerns.

The few responses include the plain and simple: “Add the Bonita Peak Mining District in San Juan County, CO to the NPL.”

The wary: “Yes it’s scary that this could or already has happened again, but as a tourious (sic), that loves to go ATVING with my family to see all the history of the area, I’m afraid that by cleaning up all these sites, the tourisium (sic) with (sic) domenish (sic) and the towns of Silverton, Oray (sic), and many others will suffer.”


And another disagreed with inclusion of the Little Nation mine, located in the Upper Animas, on the listing.

“The Little Nation mine has no water discharge,” wrote Brad Clark, pinning a nearby drainage tunnel as the culprit discharging mine wastewater into a wetland…

First, the pre-problem stage, in which an existing issue alarms experts, but hasn’t captured much public attention. Then comes alarmed discovery: an event that thrusts the problem into the spotlight, and jars people to awareness, who in turn call for a quick fix.

In the final three stages general interest wanes. The public realizes there are no silver bullets; solutions are complicated and time intensive. Some feel discouraged, overwhelmed or bored and the issue recedes to the backgrounds of people’s minds.

And by that time, a new problem has taken its place.

Brian Burke, a psychology professor at Fort Lewis College, agreed. He said the sight of orange water activated public interest. But now, it’s out of sight, out of mind.

“The problem is much more complicated than the EPA making a mistake and leaking some disgusting poison into our river,” he said. “The problem requires critical thinking, and most people won’t take the time to do that.

“Now that it’s not orange anymore, it’s harder to notice, although pollutants are being dumped daily.”