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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.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Nitty Gritty Context Behind the Gold King Mine Animas River Spill and the Sunnyside Mine

While digging through old material I had written about the Upper Animas River Watershed and its acid mine drainage problem, I stumbled upon a piece from the Silverton Mountain Journal, 2001. It's about the Sunnyside mine, which is adjacent to the Gold King in the upper Cement Creek drainage. You can read it below, but first, a little overview of the current situation: 

The Gold King -- the mine that had the blowout that resulted in the 3 million gallon Animas River Spill -- was last mined in the 1920s. After that, it had presumably discharged acidic, heavy metal loaded water, or acid mine drainage, though no one was paying attention to that sort of thing at the time. In 1959, Standard Metals dug the American Tunnel as a new way to access the existing and already extensive Sunnyside Mine, which previously had been accessed from the other side of the mountain, near Eureka.

It is now generally believed that when the American Tunnel was built, it intercepted groundwater that was otherwise headed for the Gold King and other nearby mines, the Mogul and Red and Bonita. That caused the discharge from those mines to virtually dry up. Instead, it came out the American Tunnel at a rate of as much as 1,500 gallons per minute. 

About a year after the following story was published, Sunnyside Gold Corp. signed a deal with the state and Gold King Mining, then owned by Steve Fearn, a local who wanted to revive mining in the area. Gold King would take over Sunnyside's water treatment plant, and Sunnyside would give Fearn a bunch of cash to keep it running, presumably until he could establish his own cash flow to operate it. The plant would treat water that had begun to discharge from the nearby mines, probably as a result of the American Tunnels' bulkheads (more details below on what a bulkhead is and how the treatment plant works).

Before long, things fell apart. A massive snowstorm shut down the road between Silverton and the plant, and avalanches wiped out power lines, taking the plant offline for a period, and apparently damaging it. Then Gold King got into a legal tussle with Todd Hennis, owner of San Juan Corp and Salem Minerals, and another major player in efforts to get mining going again in the San Juans (Hennis owned nearby mines, as well as land under a portion of the water treatment ponds). After that, Gold King Inc. pretty much went belly up, and the water treatment plant stopped operating. Meanwhile, water backing up in the Sunnyside apparently found the old natural fractures it had once followed, and made its way back to the Gold King and other mines, where discharge increased.

The impact on downstream life was significant, summed up by this one simple graph from a Colorado Parks and Wildlife fish count done on the upper Animas River in 2010. In the graph, Teft (blue line) refers to the spot on the Animas near its confluence with Cascade Creek, some 25 miles downstream from Silverton. Elk Park (red line) is about five miles below Silverton.
The Gold King history doesn't stop there, though. Eventually, Hennis took ownership of the Gold King. Meanwhile, yet another company, Colorado Goldfields, arrived in hopes of mining the San Juans. Hennis got involved in the company, eventually becoming its President and CEO, and together they had plans to mine the Gold King.

A 2008 SEC filing by Colorado Goldfields eerily presaged recent events:

Before long Hennis and Colorado Goldfields had their own falling out, and their own legal battle. They severed ties and the company dropped plans to mine the Gold King. Here's another SEC filing from 2011.

Today, Colorado Goldfields is apparently kaput. Hennis still owns many mining claims in the upper Cement Creek area, including the Gold King. And he's continued to butt heads with the EPA. In 2011, at the same time he was fighting with Colorado Goldfields, the EPA had to issue an administrative order to Hennis forcing him to give access to the mines so that they could investigate the mines for environmental impact. Now, Hennis is pinning responsibility on Sunnyside Gold Corp. for the discharge from the Gold King that ultimately led to the Aug. 5 blowout.

Here's the deep Sunnyside background:

Wrapping up Reclamation: the San Juans' last big mine is ready to leave for good
by Jonathan Thompson, Silverton Mountain Journal
copyright 2001

Nestled almost directly in the center of the Silverton Caldera, the old townsite of Gladstone has been the focus of a great deal of talk and activity lately. Backcountry skiers have flocked to the area to test the terrain of the Silverton Mountain Ski Area; and Gladstone offers a stunning view of Storm Peak, the termination point for a proposed, multi-million dollar scenic tram.

But the most significant thing happening in the valley has been largely ignored by the sightseers, skiers, and the media. Over the past decade, Sunnyside Gold Corporation has spent millions of dollars cleaning up a mess in this valley and its surroundings. If all goes according to plan, the clean-up effort will end this fall, seven employees will be laid-off, and the longest-running mine in the San Juans will be shut down forever.

But even after the last tailings pile is capped and revegetated, and the maze of tunnels bored over the past century and a quarter are plugged, the stories will remain. There are two stories here. One is the turbulent history of the county's major mine during its first 100 years. The other, more contentious story began in the 1970's when the Clean Water Act was implemented. This story is one whose plot is muddled by philosophical, ethical, scientific, and political questions.

The first story ended in 1991 when the last bucket of ore was hauled out of the Sunnyside Mine. The second story drags on.

By mid-afternoon in early March, it seems as if we are doomed to spend yet another day under cold, grey skies. Slush season is in full force and the Gladstone road is difficult to navigate. It is a grim day for an interview and the corrugated metal buildings of the Sunnyside Gold Corporation seem an equally grim setting. But inside, it is warm and dry, a comfortable relief from the damp chill outside.

That is not to say that the mine's offices are cush and corporate. Overhead, a waterpipe is wrapped sloppily in Christmas tinsel as though it were heat tape. And in the center of the conference room table sits a well-used ashtray. It is a reminder of an earlier time. It is also a reminder that, while the men working at this mine have not moved any ore out of its tunnels for ten years, they are still miners, and, for a little while longer, they will live and work as miners.

Larry Perino has overseen Sunnyside's award-winning reclamation work for the past five years and has worked for Sunnyside Gold Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of Echo Bay Mines, since 1988. A Silverton native, his mining career began three decades ago with Standard Metals. It is a steady career, taking breaks only in the first few years to pursue a degree in civil engineering.

Perino is tall and thin, a handsome man whose Italian ancestry is apparent. He is soft-spoken and taciturn, and his acceptance to be interviewed was less than enthusiastic. As we sit down at the table, I worry that the interview may not be very productive.

But those worries are soon erased as Perino tells the often confusing, and sometimes bizarre, story of the Sunnyside over the past few decades. His intelligence, and vast knowledge of the mine and the issues surrounding it, become clear as he explains how the story has been shaped by regulatory agencies, differences in philosophy, and the unique and complex geology that characterizes the region.

Not far from where Perino and I sit is the portal of the American Tunnel. Walk a mile into that dark, damp world, and you will be stopped by a giant, concrete plug the size of a railroad boxcar. Behind the plug is water, backed up for thousands of feet in a maze of drifts, shafts, crosscuts, and stopes that make up the vast workings of the Sunnyside Mine.

That the mine's grave is a watery one seems appropriate. Mining is no friend of the environment. It turns the innards of mountains into something that resembles Swiss cheese and scatters tailings piles, mine dumps, and abandoned buildings and equipment across the landscape. But it is the impact mining has on water quality that brings on the pressure from regulatory agencies. And it is the issue of acid mine drainage, and its toxic effects on the Animas River watershed, that has kept the Sunnyside Gold Corporation in this valley longer than it ever could have anticipated, cleaning up a mess that was started over a hundred years before the Sunnyside Gold Corporation ever came into being.

One of the earliest major mines to operate in the county and the last to cease production, the story of the Sunnyside Mine is a rich and often troubled one. In 1873, even before the Brunot Treaty freed up the San Juans for Anglo exploration and exploitation, Ruben McNutt and George Howard staked a claim to the Sunnyside Mine, located on the shores of Lake Emma.

For the next sixty years, development at the mine proceeded at a frantic pace. Mills were built, then replaced; strikes were made, and prices plummeted; operators struck it rich, only to go broke soon thereafter. Meanwhile, the town of Eureka was built upon the foundation of the Sunnyside and its ebbs and flows coincided with the mine's.

In 1939, the mine finally seemed to have no more to offer. The Sunnyside closed and Eureka was abandoned. Fourteen years later, the Shenandoah-Dives also closed, leaving San Juan County without a major mining operator in its midst. The fifties brought hard times to Silverton. But in 1959, Standard Uranium drove the American Tunnel from Gladstone and reopened the Sunnyside workings from below, resurrecting the dormant mine.

Standard Metals became the county's major mine operator and hundreds were employed at the Sunnyside Mine for the next 35 years. Like every operator before it, Standard Metals bore tunnels through the mineral rich mountains. And, as had been happening for nearly a century, the opening of the mountains aggravated an already existing problem: pollution of the area streams in the form of acid mine drainage.

Throughout the Silverton Caldera, water, oxygen, and the abundant iron pyrite combine, react, and form an acidic solution. The acids in the water dissolve heavy metals that occur naturally in the rocks and hillsides, and those toxic metals such as cadmium, arsenic, lead, and zinc. Although the process can happen naturally, mining exacerbates the problem by exposing more pyrites and metals to water and oxygen.

As a result, water that pours out of mine portals is often contaminated with toxic heavy metals that harm or kill aquatic life, such as bugs and fish, that might otherwise live in the streams. Currently, acid mine drainage is considered the greatest water quality issue facing the American West. But for decades, the problem was virtually ignored or accepted as the inevitable result of utilizing the country's abundant natural resources.

Such was the case at the Sunnyside mine in general and at the American Tunnel in particular for a long time. More than 1,000 gallons of contaminated water flowed out of the American Tunnel each minute, depositing hundreds of pounds of toxic heavy metals into the Animas River watershed each day.

But in the 1970's, the Clean Water Act was implemented. That changed everything. Mines, sewage treatment plants, factories, and anyone else who discharged water into streams or lakes was required to acquire Colorado Department of Health and Environment permits for discharge. Standard Metals was no exception and, as part of its permit, it was required to treat the water flowing from the American Tunnel.

A water treatment plant was constructed and the discharge from the tunnel entered Cement Creek somewhat cleaner than before, but still loaded with toxic metals.

In 1978, Standard Metals suffered a major setback when it drove a tunnel too close to the floor of Lake Emma. The lake's floor broke through, flooding the tunnels with water and muck. The mine survived this blow, mucked out the complex, and resumed operations. But in 1985, Standard Metals called it quits at the Sunnyside and filed for bankruptcy. In hindsight, Echo Bay may have preferred to just let things be. Instead, the large company which operates mines in the United States and Canada bought the battered mine and, in 1986, resumed production.

When Echo Bay, operating as Sunnyside Gold Corp, came in, it found that the treatment plant was not up to par, and was still allowing around 100 pounds of one toxic metal, zinc, to flow into Cement Creek. (There were other toxic metals being discharged, as well). During its tenure at the mine, SGC improved the plant and reduced metal loading to about four pounds per day. According to one estimate, the plant was costing the company about $500,000 a year to operate.

This is where the plot twists around, leaving the reader of the story lost and baffled. Because of the way the law works, Sunnyside brought the water quality of its discharges up to a level that would support flathead minnows, a sensitive species used to test toxicity of water. Ironically, this water was then dumped into Cement Creek, a highly toxic, iron-filled, orange stream that never did and never will support any type of fish, let alone a sensitive species like flathead minnows.

The concept of requiring virtual purification of the American Tunnel discharge is based on the theory that if the mine had never existed, the water would emerge as a pure and natural spring, with only negligible amounts of toxic metals. This is where the regulation process gets messy. No one, neither scientists nor the regulators, can say with any confidence that the hypothetical natural springs would have run pure.

Sunnyside Gold Corp. may have been more successful at cleaning up their water than Standard Metals was, but they fared no better at making the mine profitable. Reclamation work began in 1988, and in 1991, only five years after taking over operations, Sunnyside Gold decided to cut its losses and production ceased, this time for good.

Two or three decades earlier, a mining company in the same situation would have simply walked away, looking for a new prospect. The thought of cleaning up after one's self is a relatively new concept in the mining industry.

But by the time Sunnyside Gold had come on the scene, things had changed. Environmental responsibility was a matter of law. A company with more modern sensibilities, Echo Bay takes pride in its relative sensitivity towards the environment. Calling itself an environmental leader of the mining industry, walking away from the Sunnyside without complying fully with its discharge and reclamation permits would be a blow to Echo Bay's pocketbook and its public image.

Before it could walk, Sunnyside would need to be released from two permits. The first was from the Colorado Division of Minerals and Geology for the reclamation plan. Sunnyside proposal to remove mining buildings, consolidate and re-vegetate waste rock and tailings, and divert surface water flowing from the mine was approved by the Division.

But murkier waters would need to be navigated before the Department of Health would release the company from its American Tunnel discharge permit.

Sunnyside's plan was to plug and completely seal the tunnel making it impossible for water to flow out. The water treatment plant would be closed and dismantled. Water would build up behind the plug until equilibrium was reached and reemerge from springs which, in theory, would discharge water similar to that of pre-mining, natural conditions.

What seemed a simple and effective solution to Sunnyside was full of holes in the eyes of the Health Department's Water Quality Control Division. It wanted to treat each spring and seep that emerged as a result of plugging the mine as a separate, point-source discharger of potential pollution that would be held to the same standards as the treated water flowing from the American Tunnel.

It was a vexing situation to Sunnyside and others in the mining industry. By treating its discharges so successfully, Sunnyside had raised that standards to a level that may have been better than existed naturally. Because of natural metal loading, the industry felt that the minute Sunnyside shut down its treatment plant, water quality would inevitably deteriorate.

"Things were bound to get worse," says Perino, clearly not pleased with the health department's position. "The question is: Who is responsible?"

The Water Quality Control Division lay the blame on Sunnyside and continued to insist that each spring and seep would require a discharge permit. Sunnyside argued that to do so would be to hold the mine operator responsible for nature's mess. It was a virtual life sentence, condemning Sunnyside to remain in the basin treating dozens of springs for eternity, or at least until the company ran out of money.

So, in 1994, Sunnyside sued the state.

After two years of negotiations and constant legal wrangling, Sunnyside Gold Corporation and the Colorado Water Quality Control Division reached a precedent-setting, out of court settlement known as a consent decree. The idea was that the goals of both sides would be reached: water quality would not deteriorate from its present levels, and Sunnyside, its mess cleaned up, would be able to leave the basin.

"There is no mechanism in the discharge laws for release from a site that has continuous discharge," notes Perino. "The consent decree is a mechanism to solve those problems." But the solution has proven to be difficult, time consuming, and very costly to Sunnyside. And questions about its effectiveness remain.

Under the decree, Sunnyside would plug the American Tunnel and stop water treatment. The state would still hold Sunnyside to the standards that Sunnyside itself, in effect, created. Any deterioration in water quality after treatment was ceased would indicate a failure of Sunnyside to live up to its side of the bargain.

Since it is generally agreed that water quality will decrease at the moment treatment ceases, Sunnyside agreed to clean up several other sites before shutting down its treatment plant. In theory, reclamation of these additional sites (Sunnyside never mined at any of these sites) would reduce zinc levels enough that it would provide a water quality "cushion" of sorts.

Or as J. David Holm, Director of the WQCD at the time put it, "Any water quality problems resulting from seeps and springs following mine closure must be fully compensated for by the performance of reclamation projects at nearby abandoned mines."

It has been almost five years since the Consent Decree was signed in May of 1996. That same year, the valve was sealed shut on the main bulkhead in the American Tunnel along with five other bulkheads in various adits of the Sunnyside Mine. As a result, water backed up and flooded much of the workings of the entire Sunnyside complex of tunnels before the "mine pool" reached equilibrium (the tunnels will not fill up any further and, contrary to popular belief, water will never reach the level of Lake Emma).

When the pool reached equilibrium, 652 tons of lime was injected into it in order to increase alkalinity and decrease acidity in the old workings of the mine. The theory is that this will help decrease the acidity of seeps and springs that result from the backup of water in the mine.
Meanwhile, Sunnyside has conducted reclamation work in Eureka, up Placer Gulch, at Lake Emma, at Howardsville, and even at the headwaters of Mineral Creek, all with the goal of reducing the levels of zinc in the water at the monitoring station below Silverton. And, in order to provide a temporary water quality cushion while reclamation work was being done, water has actually been diverted from Cement Creek at the mine, treated to a very high standard, and then returned to the creek.

This summer, contingent on the award of permits, Sunnyside will put two additional bulkheads in the American Tunnel, cutting off all water discharge. Water treatment will end this fall, the employees will be laid off, and the state's monitoring period will begin.

All in all, Sunnyside has spent over $10 million in direct reclamation costs since 1991 and additional overhead costs may meet or exceed that amount. That is compared to only $2 million that has been spent by the combination of operators and agencies besides Sunnyside Gold in the basin during the same time frame.

It is generally believed that more money has been spent on reclamation by Sunnyside Gold in the last ten years than was reaped in profit from the mine over the previous 117 years. But is it enough? Will it ever be enough?

In accordance with the consent decree, monitoring of zinc levels in the river below Silverton will begin as soon as Sunnyside's water treatment plant is shut down. Monitoring will last at least one year, and maybe two, in order to get a picture of water quality at a full range of flows in the river.

The minute Sunnyside stops treating Cement Creek water, the water quality will drastically deteriorate. The question is, will the additional reclamation projects completed by Sunnyside be enough to offset that deterioration and keep water quality levels at or better than those in 1996?
At this point it is difficult to tell. According to Perino, there has been a general trend of decrease in zinc levels at the monitoring station, but that the trend has been broken by seasonal fluctuations and "spikes" in the level of zinc that are significantly higher than before. Given the extent of reclamation work done by Sunnyside, it must be frustrating not to see a definite, vast improvement.

That there has not been a direct correlation between remediation work and water quality demonstrates the complexity of the problem of acid mine drainage in this particular area. It shows that solving the problem is not as simple as just cleaning up the mines, and conversely, it demonstrates that the problem's cause is not simply the presence of abandoned mines.

There may be other explanations, as well. Animas River Stakeholders Group Coordinator Bill Simon says that water quality has improved at its monitoring station on Mineral Creek as well as the station at Baker's Bridge, about 25 miles downstream. That similar results were not found at A-72 is probably because Mineral Creek, Cement Creek, and the Animas River mix immediately above the station, according to Simon.

Perino also believes that the data collected prior to 1996 may have been incomplete. "This area is not typical," he says. "There is no 'typical' year. That means the 'baseline' data may or may not represent the true baseline."

And remediation work itself may also be causing problems with monitoring. "It is really difficult to show trends when many activities are occurring in the basin," noted Simon. "Remediation initially can cause disturbances resulting in higher than normal metal concentrations. These settle down in time."

Under the terms of the consent decree, if the Water Quality Control Division finds that zinc levels have increased at the monitoring station, which seems possible at this point, it could refuse to let Sunnyside out of its discharge permits. This would mean Sunnyside would either have to do more reclamation or forego the $5 million dollar bond it posted with the state.

But things have changed in the five years since the consent decree was signed. Extensive monitoring and data analysis by the Animas River Stakeholders Group and other agencies have demonstrated that acid mine drainage has no simple causes, nor does it have simple solutions. Natural background metal loading, they have found, contributes more pollution to the watershed than abandoned mines do.

"It's always good to finish a project," says Perino, anticipating the approaching day when the company is released from its permits and is allowed to cease its existence. But the the triumph seems tempered by a bittersweet knowledge that the successful completion of this project also marks the end of the job for him and the employees he manages.

It also marks the end of the second Sunnyside story. It is a story of responsibility more than anything else; a story of a mining company buying a hundred year old business, operating it properly for five years, then being forced to clean up the mess left by over a century of disregard for the environment. It is a story of that company being held partially responsible for a mess that Nature, herself, may have made thousands of years before man ever set foot in the basin.

Questions about the definitions of pollution, about how far environmental regulation should go, and about the responsibilities corporations have to the environment surround this story along with the age old query: What part do we play in this elusive entity we call Nature?

The answers, if they exist, are not easily found. But even after the story is forgotten, the questions it raised will linger.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Gold King Mine and Animas River Spill

Unless you've been living in a cave, you've heard about how the Animas River, which runs right through Durango, turned orange. The river means a lot to me: It's the heart and soul of my hometown, and has been an almost constant presence throughout most of my life. My ancestors first settled on its banks in 1874, and my family has continued to work and live up and down its reaches ever since. I was born just two weeks after the river flooded, turning the glacially carved Animas Valley above Durango into a sort of natural reservoir, backed up behind the glacial moraines. And as kids, we'd go down to what we called the sandbar -- a little beach up the valley, where the river runs slow -- and camp out and play and fish. And in the summer, we'd spend day after day on and in the river in town, fishing, catching minnows, you name it.

So when 3 million gallons of backed-up acid mine drainage burst out of the Gold King Mine above Silverton, sending an acidic, heavy metal-laden, sludge-filled orange plume our way, it was sad, but not all that surprising: The Animas River has been polluted by mine tailings and acid mine drainage for as long as mining has been in the region, since the 1870s. When I was a kid in the 1970s, this was just something we sort of lived with.

Much later, in 1996, I moved to Silverton to work for the local rag, the Silverton Standard and the Miner. My first big story was about acid mine drainage, the history of mine pollution and the newly formed Animas River Stakeholders Group and its efforts to clean up the mess, sans Superfund. It was fascinating, maybe more to me than my readers. I continued to cover the efforts extensively after I started my own publication in Silverton, the San Juan Mountain Journal, then bought the Silverton Standard. I had come to understand the complexities of the situation, and the difficulty in addressing it. I also understood that there's been a slow motion sort of mine spill going on for decades. This recent catastrophe was simply the most visible and dramatic manifestation of that spill.

You can read my post for High Country News, which has been widely praised as the most contextual and nuanced look out there, here. I think it probably is, simply because I had the context swirling around in my brain already.

Here are a collection of photos I took throughout the disaster. Thanks to EcoFlight for flying me and others over the Animas on a gorgeous day. 

The Animas River runs through Durango, looking like Tang, mustard, bad baby food or maybe turmeric, on Aug. 7, the morning after the plume arrived in town.

The plume reached the head of the Animas Valley some 24 hours after the spill. This was taken Aug. 6 at around noon, about six miles north of Durango.

The Animas River just north of Durango on the morning of Aug. 9. The color of the river had obviously improved, though was still far from pre-spill conditions. Note the orange sediment that was left behind at the oxbows.

The Gold King Mine, at the bottom of the photo, with the Cement Creek drainage in the background. Cement Creek most likely has never supported fish because of natural iron loading (turning the water orange), and even before the spill had a pH level of around 3.5 -- on par with a Dr. Pepper soda. Just over the hill from the Gold King is the American Tunnel of the Sunnyside Mine, the last big mine to operate in the region.

Looking into the Silverton Caldera from the air.
In 1975, some 50,000 tons of tailings from a pond just above Silverton spilled into the Animas River, turning the river the color of "aluminum paint" all the way down to Farmington, 100 miles downstream, and beyond.

Friday, January 16, 2015

A tragic situation; a difficult story

Last summer, I got a call from an old friend from whom I hadn't heard in ages. He had a story idea for me, he said, a big deal. He has pretty close ties to someone who has very close ties to the energy industry, so I figured it was going to be some sort of insider's tip regarding oil and gas drilling. But no. His tip was about Colin Sutton, a ski patroller who was killed by a backcountry avalanche last March while on the job for Wolf Creek Ski Area. It turns out that Davey Pitcher, the CEO of Wolf Creek, didn't have a permit to be doing avalanche or any other sort of work on national forest land outside of the ski area boundaries. The government was pressing charges.

I remember getting a sort of sick feeling in my gut almost immediately. I really didn't want to do the story. It's not really up my alley, and not really up High Country News' alley, either. I felt awful for Doug Sutton, Colin's father, whom my friend had suggested I call to get the rest of the story. But I also felt bad for Pitcher, who's just a guy trying to run a small ski area in a horrendous drought -- he's not exactly a big, bad ski corporation throwing its employees into harm's way in order to make a buck.

But I couldn't really walk away. After all, if Wolf Creek had been a drilling operation, or a coal mine, and someone had died on the rig or underground while doing unauthorized work on public land, we'd try to get to the bottom of it. Still, it was difficult to write; hard to be fair to everyone, to respect Colin and his father and his father's grief. And it kind of made me wish I was an accountant or something.

And so, the story. It's at High Country News, Website only. Read it if you wish.