As the Gold King Spill Reminds Us, We All Live Downstream

The Animas River Between Silverton and Durango, Colorado, within 24 hours of the spill from Gold King Mine.  Photo credit: Riverhugger/Creative Commons.
The Animas River Between Silverton and Durango, Colorado, within 24 hours of the spill from Gold King Mine. Photo credit: Riverhugger/Creative Commons.

Around this time last year, I was walking the banks of the Animas River in Durango, the southwestern Colorado town blindsided last week when the river turned a sickly yellow-orange from a colossal spill of toxic mine drainage upstream near Silverton.

It’s hard to imagine a river more central to a town than the Animas is to Durango. Bikers, runners, and dog-walkers keep both banks in constant motion, as endless flotillas of tubers and rafters float the river through town.

Twice I hiked the Animas Mountain trail, which affords spectacular views of the river’s meanders and oxbows, and of the riverside town of 17,000 below. From on high, the Animas seems to knit the landscape of forest, farm and town together. If ever a river was the lifeblood of a community, it’s the Animas flowing through Durango.

So when I heard the news of the breach at Gold King Mine that sent massive quantities – ultimately some 3 million gallons – of drainage laced with toxic metals into the river, my heart seized up and my mind raced ahead. Not the Animas. How could this be? And how far will that frightfully colored plume of pollution go?

The tragic accident occurred as contractors for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were working to plug Gold King, which had been leaking acid mine drainage into the river system for years.

But the stage was set by decades of neglect and the near-absence of any requirements that mining companies take responsibility for preventing harm to people and aquatic life after they close their mines. Some 500,000 abandoned mines, most un-reclaimed, now dot the nation’s landscape.

And as we’ve learned from the Gold Kind tragedy, we —> Read More

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