“Catastrophe!” Screamed the Newspaper Headline

Aug 12, 2015 by

At approximately 10:30am on Wednesday, August 5th, 2015, the wheels were set in motion for a man-made disaster in the Animas River watershed near Durango, Colorado. Truth be told–those wheels have been grinding slowly for decades, but on the date & time above the dam finally broke. Literally.

Our river now looks like this:
Photo courtesy of The La Plata County Emergency Management Office

Follow me over the pile of toxic Heavy Metals for a sad tale of greed, corruption, delays, misguided civic boosters, the EPA, and my town’s beloved & now destroyed river.

I suppose this story begins over a century ago, in the rugged & beautiful southern Rocky Mountains. The San Juan Mountains, beautiful as they are, held a thing even more desired than the gorgeous mountains that were full of game and awe-inspiring views: Gold and Silver.

In short order, many made their way to the gold & silver mines. They were hastily built–gold does not wait long to be mined once it’s whereabouts become known. Many fortunes were made near the town of Silverton, Colorado. Even more fortunes were made 50 miles downstream in Durango–where the smelter and even more importantly, the banks were located. The American Indians–the Southern Ute Tribe and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe were driven off the land as quickly as possible. Progress! Progress & wealth had finally arrived in southwest Colorado. Plenty of books have been written about that bit of Colorado history. I won’t attempt to explain & describe all the history in this diary, and I have only said this much about it because it plays heavily into recent tragic events.

As is far too often the case, once the commons had been invaded and the profits extracted, all parties began to lose interest in the mines. It is a story that played out over & over & over again, not just in Colorado, but everywhere natural resources are found. Sure, every few years a bit more lucre was discovered, the mines revived for a while, and then as they failed to deliver the promised millions of dollars in gold & silver they fell quiet once again. At no point was the slightest consideration given to the toxic mess that was being created. No money in that, right?

Over the last several decades, it became apparent that the toxic slop left behind was a problem. Things such as water the color of a red playground ball or yellow like mustard began to seep & leech from the mine. That water cleaned all the aquatic life from the drainage that flows into the river. And by ‘killing all aquatic life’, I mean ALL the fish, ALL the plants, the mosses, the frogs, the insects, and plenty of deer, elk, mountain goats, Big Horn Sheep, and anything else that consumed the formerly life-giving water. At first the damage was only close to the mines, but in short order, the creek closest to the mines, Cement Creek, was devoid of any life. NO ONE could deny something was very, very wrong. To this day, Cement Creek is a dead zone, with odd stains on the rocks, pretty yet toxic water, and not a single living thing. Local, native fish such as the Colorado variety of trout disappeared. Eventually(!!!), folks grew concerned.

But by that time, the mines were barely accessible. Cave-ins blocked mines, the terrain made access extremely difficult for machinery, and some even had collapsed entrances which precludes any access. Various remediation efforts were tried–they all failed. You see, when you bore a hole into the ground in an area that receives well over 10′ of snow every year, it fills with water from snow melt. Even if you seal the entrance, water gets into the mine. In an operating mine the water is continually pumped out, but in a closed, abandoned mine, the water builds up & builds up, until…
And since water can’t be easily stopped when it wants to go downhill, that same water–after soaking in toxic chemicals used in mining as well as naturally occurring heavy metals, it seeped out. Short of covering an entire mountain in concrete, you will not stop the seepage–it will always find a way down hill… And down hill from the mines is the headwaters of the Animas River. The same river that was used prior to a narrow gauge railroad being built to transport the gold & silver down to Durango & the smelter & banks. Ah–but Silverton was safe from the bad water; their drinking water supply comes from a different source from the area of the mines. They could still eat the fish, bathe, and drink the water–so, sucks to be you Durango was the thought I suppose.

Forward to recent times. The mines, and in particular The Gold King Mine, came onto the radar of State, then Federal entities. The EPA became involved. They wanted to declare the area a Superfund site, releasing enough Federal might and Dollars to fix this mess. And then they all lived happily ever after. Except no they didn’t, because greedy humans became involved. There were fights and lawsuits over ownership of the mines, over jurisdictional boundaries (even between Federal agencies), over who would pay, who would be liable–you name it, folks fought over it. NO ONE wanted to pay, or let the mines be forever sealed because GOLD man!

Silverton today is a tourist town, a tiny town of between 200 & 800 folks, depending on the time of year. It sits in a bowl surrounded by gorgeous, incredibly steep peaks, so, in the winter only a few hardy souls can endure the short days of big snows, and the population drops to ~200 folks. The terrain is so awesome for skiing that 2 or 4 years ago (I forget when, so sue me), American Olympic Champion & X Games star Shaun White’s sponsors had a private ski area built for him to practice on. He helicoptered up & skied down endlessly until he was a Gold Medal winner. That brought more tourists to town and to ski Kendall Mountain. In the Summer, tremendous numbers of tourists come to Silverton to cool off & play in the mountains–it sits at 9500′ above sea level so it remains cool when Phoenix hits 115, and Houston hits 105. In fact, were it not for the tourists, Silverton would be stuck at a population of 200 year round–no industry, a one week growing season (you can’t grow a single crop besides rhubarb there), locked in between several 12 or 13000′ peaks with a nerve rattling drive in & out of town…so–tourism rules the day in Silverton. And frankly it IS beautiful & fun to visit. Durango’s famous steam powered narrow gauge train has its terminus in Silverton, and hundred’s of thousands of folks ride from Durango to Silverton yearly on The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. I’d recommend it whole heartedly.

And the civic boosters, the Chamber of Commerce, and the County Supervisors in Silverton most assuredly did not want Silverton to become known as a place that needed a Superfund site. No. Way. We have pristine beautiful mountains here not a Superfund site, dontchaknow! They managed to forestall the designation of a Superfund site by the EPA. Sure, the EPA was there, and they were working hard to clean up a mess the Invisible Hand of the Free Market failed to remediate after sucking all the profits out.
Here is an article from 2013 in the local Durango Herald that explains how & why (and who–they name names) Silverton fought off a Superfund site designation:

A sample quote from the article: “San Juan County Commissioner Peter McKay said while some of Silverton’s opposition stemmed from the indignity of needing federal help, the majority arose from residents’ fears that being listed as a Superfund site would taint its tourist appeal.
Bev Rich, chairwoman of the San Juan County Historical Society, San Juan County treasurer and lifelong Silverton resident, echoed those concerns.
“We’re a tourist area,” she said. “This is our living now, this beautiful scenery and our very interesting history. You hear the word ‘Superfund’ site and 99 percent think ‘danger.’ So why would you want to go to a Superfund site?”

Which brings us to last Wednesday morning. Through an unfunny comedy of errors, the EPA, while inspecting a particular area around The Gold King Mine, managed to breech an unseen & unknown dam IN the mine of a MILLION gallons of mine waste, heavy metals, rotting mine timbers, and God only knows what else. That million gallon deluge of toxic waste smashed down the headwaters, careened through the narrow pinch canyons of the San Juan Mountains, to reach the widened, more serene flows of the Animas Valley & onward into the heart of Durango–killing all aquatic life along the way.

Here’s how that toxic sludge looked from a helicopter on Thursday as the water finally reached Durango:
Photo courtesy of The La Plata County Emergency Management Office

And I do mean sludge. Here’s a small rock plucked from the river:
Photo courtesy of The La Plata County Emergency Management Office

In better days, the Animas River appears like this
Photo courtesy of the Animas-La Plata Water Conservancy

And our river will continue to look like crap for a while. Even once the color becomes less sickening looking, the toxic heavy metals will remain. No fish will be left. Plant life will be decimated. This water is the secondary drinking water source for Durango, CO. A few more miles downstream, it is the primary drinking water source for Aztec & Farmington, New Mexico. It will eventually work its way to Lake Powell…

Today the EPA accepted responsibility for the disaster. I’m not sure how that will help our river any time soon–that’s for the lawsuits that are to come. Nothing will bring the fish back any time soon. All human activity has been banned from the river–and our Sheriff has applied the force of Law, making it illegal to enter the river. Rafting companies are out of business. Fishing guides are out of business. Ranchers who water their livestock have been advised to secure their animals away from the water. Officials have advised that the water will kill your small pet. No swimming, floating, fishing allowed. And the river is used for irrigation by ranchers for their hay to feed their livestock over the Winter–or rather, it used to be. Grasses suck up that toxic slop, making it unsafe for critters to eat. Now–how many ways did I just list that commerce & recreation has been affected or eliminated? Enough that my area has taken a hit in tourism-our life blood. Enough that a large portion of residents have lost their livelihood that has nothing to do with tourism or recreation on the river. It is a dreadful, horrifying turn of events, that began over a 100 years ago and was fed & fueled by greed.

And you wonder why my sig line is “The better I know people, the more I like my dog”…

*There are a ton of current news stories in the Durango Herald, our local newspaper. They are doing a fine job of reporting on this man-made disaster, despite the quotes in articles from various Officials describing the deadly, toxic shit water as “discolored” or “sediment laden water”. There are many pictures and far, far more information than I’ve provided in this diary. If you have the time & interest, please click through and read The Herald’s reporting, although I must warn you–it’s grim.






And from the La Plata County Emergency Management Office, many pics:

** AN Update of sorts: I wrote this diary last night, then went to bed. There is a bit of additional news this morning. First, today’s print headline is “EPA: We’re Sorry”. And secondly, The Durango Herald has removed their paywall, so you may access as many Herald articles as you wish for free. There are, of course, more, fresher pictures in todays paper, as well as reactions from our Senators-Bennet & Gardner & Congressionalderp, Scott Tipton. Oh, heck–every Official is weighing in, in today’s edition. Here’s the link to today’s Herald. From this link you may access any article about this horrifying tragedy: http://www.durangoherald.com/

I’d ask for the help of the mighty forces of many Kossacks, but I honestly have no idea what y’all could do. You know us here as The Four Corners Kossacks, jovially referred to as FCKers. Sadly, these days, we’re just plain FCKed.

Originally posted to Four Corners Kossacks on Sat Aug 08, 2015 at 06:30 AM PDT.

Also republished by Colorado COmmunity, DK GreenRoots, Barriers and Bridges, and State Open Thread.


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