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Wednesday, July 6, 2016

New Website

From here on out, Animas River-related writing and images will be on my new site, River of Lost Souls. That includes a post about that name, and how it's actually a mistake, but I'm using it anyway.

I'll keep this blog alive, though, as an archive. There are some great comment threads here and wouldn't want those to go away. Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

I'm writing a book about the Animas River!

I recently signed a contract with the independent, non-profit publishing house, Torrey House Press, to write a book about the Animas River watershed, to be published in spring of 2018.

It will be a sort of history of the watershed and its communities, viewed through the lens of water pollution, springboarding off of my coverage of the Gold King mine disaster for High Country News. The book will be part science writing, part investigative journalism, part historical non-fiction and part memoir. And it will be an ode to a part of the world that I call "home," and a chronicle of the evolving relationship between the people who live here and the river that is so critical to those people.

The tentative title is "Sacrificial Waters," though I also like the idea of "River of Lost Souls."

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Silverton, the Gold King, mining, water, culture and identity

I finally finished my feature story for High Country News about the Gold King Mine spill. Really it's about Silverton, and about a community that was built on mining, and has struggled to forge a new, post-mining identity while also grappling with the pollution it left behind. Read the story here.

Read the story

It's a long story, but I think a pretty good read. It started out at 16,000 words, and through many drafts the able editors at HCN and I were able to hone it down to about 6,000. Left on the cutting room floor was a lot about the history of mining pollution on the Animas River and elsewhere in the West, which I think is a fascinating story in itself. For decades, battles raged between the mining towns, like Silverton, and the downstream communities, like Durango, Jefferson County on Clear Creek, and Glenwood Springs and Carbondale on the Roaring Fork. I'll be writing that up separately, either for HCN or for here or, perhaps, for a book (but you didn't hear it from me).

Check out the timeline

Also chopped out were a lot of the technical details about the Gold King and its links to the American Tunnel. These are important, so I was able to salvage them by putting them into this really exhaustive (okay, exhausting) timeline. It is by far the most comprehensive history of the Gold King Mine out there right now. It includes the origin story of the mine (located by Olaf Arvid Nelson in 1887); details about how it grew from just one claim into a profitable empire for Northeastern capitalists; how it was repeatedly hit by tragedy, from fires to fatal avalanches; and how it was revived in the late 1980s, even producing some 33,000 tons of ore and killing one miner, Donald "Donnie" Goode. It also tracks the history of drainage from the Gold King from when it was a "dry" mine back in 1986, to when it was spewing out more than 200 gallons per minute prior to the spill.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Gold King #7 Level, early 1900s

At last! My High Country News cover story on the story behind the Gold King Mine blowout is about to be published. No link yet, but I do have this photograph. I'll be putting some of the outtakes -- the more wonky stuff that got cut from the story -- up on this blog in upcoming days. For now, a photo of the Gold King #7 Level, in the early 1900s, which is the portal that blew out on August 5, 2015. Construction on this level of the mine (originally called the American Tunnel, just to confuse everyone), was completed in 1900 or so.

I find the photo remarkable for a couple of reasons. There's the big boarding house, perched precariously on the slope (and yes, it was hit by an avalanche on more than one occasion), plus all the other structures, all of which would burn in the tragic fire of 1908 (when six lives were lost). More relevant to what's going on today: The water, an estimated 200 to 300 gallons per minute, draining from the portal. 

You see, in the 1980s, when Gerber Minerals went in to open the Gold King Mine back up again, it didn't need a discharge permit from the state because #7 Level was virtually dry, draining just a few gallons per minute or less. (Bill Simon emphasized that it wasn't totally dry -- he did some work there in the 1980s and the crew left an excavator in the portal. When they came back a few months later, the machine's tracks had been eaten away by the acidic water). 

But starting in the late 1990 or early 2000s after bulkheads were installed in the American Tunnel, the mine started discharging again. This photo indicates that that water was simply returning to its historic, pre-American Tunnel path. Stay tuned for more...

Saturday, August 29, 2015

An acid mine drainage explainer, and a curious account of the Gold King circa 1901

Frustrated by a general misunderstanding among the public of how the water in the Gold King got polluted in the first place, I put together an acid mine drainage explainer for High Country News. I even drew my own diagrams for it, because I couldn't, for the life of me, find one on the intertubes that did simply showed what was going on. Oh, and I can't draw.

Anyway. If you read the explainer, you'll see that I make passing reference to a 1901 USGS report that makes particular note of an unusual quality of the Gold King Mine: It's dry.

At first, I discounted this, because the reference is to the "lower levels" of the mine. I took this to refer to the American Tunnel of the Gold King, which I believe was located about where the American Tunnel of the Sunnyside is now. Yet the blowout actually occurred in what's now called the Upper Gold King Mine. So the information seemed irrelevant. But then I read a little bit more about the Gold King:
Wait! It lies at 12,500 feet? But the Sunnyside Mine and today's American Tunnel, which is very close to where the Gold King Mill was located, is at just 10,600 feet in elevation. Then there was this:
Hmmm... The Upper Gold King mine is located at about 11,600 feet. Was the reference to the dry mine workings, then, actually a reference to the Upper Gold King? I'm not sure what to make of this, but I'm throwing it to my knowledgeable readers and commenters to see what you think. The full 1901 report is linked to above.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The myriad "other" threats to the Animas River

Sure, the Gold King blowout and the orange river that resulted were pretty bad. Really bad. But that disaster was arguably one of the less malignant threats facing the Animas and San Juan Rivers as they run through southwestern Colorado, northwestern New Mexico and southern Utah. There are many, many more threats: The remnants of three uranium mills, one of the most prolific coalbed methane fields in the world, two gargantuan coal-fired power plants, hundreds of apparently leaky septic tanks and more.

Check out my map giving details on those threats at High Country News.

Here's a nice description of the Animas River about five miles north of Durango as it appeared in 1876, in the pre-industrialized days. It's a memory from Pioneers of the San Juan Country, Vol III (copyright 1952), by John W. Turner.