Jonathan Romeo/Durango Herald
By Jonathan Romeo
Herald Staff Writer
Article Last Updated: Wednesday, October 14, 2015 9:23pm
Soaring above Southwest Colorado reveals a magnificent landscape as the San Juan Mountains spill out into the shining desert lands to the south. But the aerial view also offers a drastic insight into the mark mining and drilling operations have left on the land.
“Take a good look around,” San Juan Citizen’s Alliance executive director Dan Olson said over the single-engine aircraft’s radio transmitter. “It’s not only hard-rock mining, there’s a whole lot of active oil and gas development in this area.”
On Wednesday, a handful of environmental studies students from Fort Lewis College took part in EcoFlight’s Flight Across America 2015, which engages college students about environmental issues, both in the air and on the ground. This year’s focus is the “mega-drought” occurring in the West, drawing attention to conservation concerns as the region’s tenuous water supply is increasingly threatened.
“Our mission is to educate and advocate for the environment,” said Bruce Gordon, executive director for EcoFlight. “This is a great way to get more bright young adults involved.”
Crews took the students up the San Juan Skyway to Silverton as Olson explained the events of the Aug. 5 Gold King Mine blowout, and the other risks to the vital headwaters of the Animas River.
“It was a unique opportunity to fly over the watershed,” said FLC professor Brad Clark, who added he has incorporated the Gold King Mine spill in his curriculum. “I wanted them to understand how the watershed and basin are connected, and what happens here affects the entire basin.”
Afterward, students received a short lecture from Olson, as well as members of Mountain Studies Institute, Trout Unlimited and the Southwestern Water Conservation District. Joe Ben Jr., a representative from the Shiprock Farmers Board, said the spill revealed the imperative responsibility for keeping the waters of the Animas healthy. He explained the farmers have still not received water test samplings from the Navajo Nation’s environmental experts – a reason why many have still not turned on their irrigation channels.
“There is still a continuous discharge of uncolored metal coming through,” he said. “On this Earth there is a shortage of clean water for humanity. We all, equally, should take care of this.”
Anna Amidon, a senior at FLC, said she was backpacking in the San Juan Mountains when the plume cascaded downstream, and her group actually had to wade across the orange waters. An environmental studies major, she’s followed the issues of the Upper Animas mining district closely, and Wednesday was a good chance to see it from above. “I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it, and it’s interesting to see the different organizations looking at the issues,” she said. “And that airplane ride was sweet.”