In the shadow of the jagged, 14,000-foot-plus San Juan mountain range sits the fertile valley where Jennifer James Wheeling grew up as part of a ranching family that has taken its lifeblood from the Animas River for decades. That water has been used to grow hay, sustain a grass-fed beef herd, and farm organically grown vegetables.
This week the water glowed orange, filled with heavy metals and toxins that spewed from a gold mine near Silverton, Colorado, last Wednesday after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and its contractor accidentally broke open a dam wall while investigating there.
“We got the call early in the morning and we shut down all our head gates, so none of it got into our fields or our ponds,” says Wheeling, who returned along with her siblings to James Ranch 15 years ago to work with their parents to grow their ranching and farming business. “They closed the [irrigation] ditch down but it’s not a sealable thing so it still leaked in and our own ditch has that orange nastiness all along it.”
That “orange nastiness” is a cocktail of cadmium, arsenic, lead, copper, manganese and other metals. The EPA released data Sunday revealing that it had released more than 3m gallons of the toxic sludge more than three times its original estimate – into Cement Creek, a tributary to the Animas River.
At their peak, arsenic levels were 300 times the normal level and lead was 3,500 times the normal level. Officials say those levels have dropped notably since the plume moved through the area.
The massive orange plume of that release has since moved downstream through the Animas Valley, into downtown Durango, and on through to New Mexico, where it has choked off the main water supply for farmers along the way, as well as the main drinking water supply for towns such as Aztec and Farmington plus the 27,000 square-mile Navajo Nation.Discoloration of the Animas River can be seen as it flows adjacent to Durango high school in the heart of Durango, Colorado. Photograph: Jeremy Wade Shockley for the Guardian
The main water supply for Durango is pulled from the Pine River, but after the city pulls out just over 5m gallons per day from this source, it looks to the Animas River. Currently, while it has asked residents to conserve, Durango is pulling water from slowly decreasing holding reservoirs.
At this stage, this event involves two states (soon to expand to four), two tribal governments, three EPA districts and multiple counties and municipalities. And, as of yesterday, the city of Durango and La Plata County declared a state of emergency.
La Plata County manager Joe Kerby said: “This action has been taken due to the serious nature of the incident and to convey the grave concerns that local elected officials have to ensure that all appropriate levels of state and federal resources are brought to bear to assist our community not only in actively managing this tragic incident but also to recover from it.”
The scenic Animas River waterway, which was the backdrop for parts of the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, is also hugely popular for water-based recreation, including swimming, standup paddleboarding, tubing and whitewater kayaking and rafting. This is a major source of tourism and revenue for local businesses.
“It’s terrible from a business standpoint and an emotional standpoint,” says Alex Mickel, founder and president of Mild to Wild, a popular outfitter of rafting and off-road Jeep excursions, who says he has lost tens of thousands of dollars in business since the mine blowout occurred, with more cancellations coming in every day. “It’s just devastating to see this damage happen to the river that’s at the heart of your community.”
Durango is an off-the-beaten-path city of nearly 17,000 people, many of whom moved there specifically to seek out a simplified mountain town lifestyle – fresh air, clean rivers, unlocked doors, backcountry and wilderness access and abundant recreation opportunities from skiing and mountain biking to backpacking and kayaking. The population is peppered with professional athletes, retirees, telecommuters and second-home owners, who have also banked on this fast-growing Four Corners hub as a real estate investment.Discoloration of the Animas River is evident at Santa Rita Park. This section of the river is designated as a whitewater park and kayaker slalom course. Photograph: Jeremy Wade Shockley for the Guardian
“This unfortunate event could not only affect the local business economy, but also real estate property values down the road,” says Durango resident Darren Croke, a homeowner and rental property owner who is also a telecommuter and principal software engineer for an electric motorcycle maker in California’s Bay Area.
As the Animas River drama unfolds – and the heavy metal-laced plume continues to move downstream where it has now converged with the San Juan River, which eventually feeds into Glen Canyon National Recreation area and Lake Powell – the short-term effects are being monitored and the long-term effects are being speculated. As sediment settles into the Animas riverbed, experts have warned that Durango could see a rash of river closures for years to come as those heavy metals gets kicked up by monsoons, spring snowmelt runoff from the mountains and major weather events.
The Gold King mine continues to discharge 500 gallons per minute but the polluted water is being contained and treated in two recently dug ponds by the site of the spill, according to the EPA.
The EPA has been criticized over the past several days for the way it has handled numerous points, from not notifying the state of New Mexico about the mine release event until 24 hours after it happened, to its slow pace in releasing water test sample results (along with historical data for comparison) that would clearly indicate the extremity of the situation.
“EPA is sending out all this data but not including the background and not putting it into the context of human health,” says Dan Olson, executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, a local nonprofit that advocates for clean air, pure water and healthy lands.
Despite this frustration, a number of Durango residents who place a high value on accountability, honesty and karma – Tibetan prayer flags fly at many of the colorful, historic downtown homes – have maintained a positive attitude about the potential outcomes.
“No one has talked to us directly about that [financial compensation], but we are hopeful that the EPA is going to step up and do the right thing for the community and the businesses that were impacted,” says Mickel. On Sunday night, the EPA issued a press release with information on the claims process for “compensating citizens who suffer personal injury or property damage caused by US government actions”.
Data released thus far leaves some room for optimism. Six Colorado Parks and Wildlife test cages of 108 hatchery fish have seen only one mortality in the past few days. In addition, Silverton’s nonprofit Mountain Studies Institute, a mountain research and education center, has seen little effect from the event with its macro invertebrate study.Sediment from the wastewater collects along the shallows of the Animas River at Santa Rita Park in Durango, Colorado. Photograph: Jeremy Wade Shockley for the Guardian
“We still have all the major species of invertebrates,” says Aaron Kimple, MS, program director. “That’s a good sign that the river is going to be able to sustain this event. If the pH dropped to critical level we would have had big die-offs.
”With other potential impacts of this leak still unknown, some point to a potentially bigger problem highlighted by this event: the Silverton area lays claim to as many as 30 more abandoned mines that could experience a similar event. “There will be a next time because we haven’t figured out how to deal with these problems,” said Olson.
Despite the prevalence of potentially toxic legacy mines in the region, some experts suggest that the town of Silverton and surrounding San Juan County have resisted Superfund status and are still actively seeking out additional mining opportunities. “EPA has talked on and off about making San Juan County a Superfund site since the 80s,” says Peter Butler, Animas Watershed co-coordinator of the Animas River Stakeholders Group.
“In the 90s we did prioritized all the different sites and identified about 30 that we thought would need remediation,” Butler continues. “We also came up with water quality standards that were adopted by the state of Colorado. But Superfund status has been in limbo for years and the local community [in Silverton] is wary of this, but EPA has been pushing for it. Silverton is a community that would still like to have mining and they are concerned they won’t have any investors for future mining if they receive Superfund status.”
At the same time, several of these mines have been leaking into the Animas River for a decade at the rate of as much as 600 to 800 gallons a minute, according to Butler. Because it is an ongoing problem punctuated by a major, river-altering event, some are now calling for a faster answer.
“In terms of all the work done to date in mine waste remediation, it has been insufficient to protect our communities from the harm left behind from a legacy of mining,” says Olson. “What we really need now is to rethink our approach. At the end of the day, our communities aren’t protected, so obviously what we’ve done has been insufficient.”