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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.


  1. There is a great set of photos from beginning to end on the EPA site. There were 3 trucks, a suburban, D8 Cat and a Backhoe on site as of August 4th. They added a bail of straw in front of a culvert to filter the water. A bail of straw. Anyways, lots of good information there. The contractors were GSA. I assume that the local GSA contractor Ecosphere based in Durango may be the point contact.

    They literally did zero investigation prior to excavating the bulkhead.
    Photos show litmus tests in the 4.5 PH range, but better testing put it at less than 3.

    Anyway, I enjoyed your reporting. I don't know if you plan on writing a piece on the actual incident, but the photos tell a very complete story.

    1. Hey, thanks, that's great info. I'll look into it.

    2. Thanks. I am interested in understanding what had been done to the site and when, prior to Aug 4, 2015. I was hoping you could fill in the blanks.
      I have looked at the site using Google Earth (imagery date 6/27/2104). The road to the site is washed out and there is no indications of vehicle use or disturbance near the mine entrance. Now look at this EPA photo taken on 9/11/2014:
      You can clearly see that the site road has been graded, and the mine entrance has been altered. What I can surmise is that someone did some work on the site a year ago. Since the photo came from the EPA page for the site, I am just assuming that it was the EPA that did "some" work in 2014. I just don't know what that work was. Again, the assumption would be that they put a large earthen bulkhead at the entrance. Fast forward to 2015 there is the Town Hall meeting in June, and some notes suggesting that the adit had collapsed and they were going to go back to drain it. They certainly had all the equipment there to do that... except for any containment system.
      If you can fill in some blanks, it would make for some interesting reading.

  2. They have taken down the EPAOSC site for the Gold King and have redirected interested parties to a post clean-up website with happy people on the river... I hope you got some pictures before they disappeared.

  3. Anonymous: I looked at the photos, but didn't save any because I didn't think they'd take them down. They may still live somewhere else. I'll look around.