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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.


  1. Great story! The timeline was the best part.


    1. Thanks, Pat. You steered me towards some of those documents in your comments on my earlier posts. Much appreciated!

  2. Great timeline.
    As for Silverton's future.....I see problems.
    The EPA will own the entire district, per the 'Superfund' map.
    All people and companies that have a claim, or ownership of any kind of patented land, will most likely lose it, and receive either nothing, or pennies on the dollar.
    Those who dissent what the EPA does, will lose more than that. The EPA has already laid the ground work for that. (Recall the testing of soil in town?)
    Any of those who wanted to see good jobs, ie;mining, return to the district.....forget it. Won't happen.
    The 'temporary' water treatment plant will churn along.....for probably 5 to 10 years until the EPA does anything. At least it is doing something. Then, I would guess, they will go back to plugging and bulk-heading more Portals, after Upper Gold King. They will have to. The more they plug, the water will rise and find a different exit, just as it did when the American was plugged.

    The best thing that could of happened, was a good reliable mining company come in, but that sadly will not happen. There IS a lot of gold in them hills.....but who would go after it now.
    The EPA will move in. Environmentalists like to hike, ski, and fish. They will bring in a few jobs, though doubtful would use any locals. They will spend our tax dollars on $934.00 chairs, fancy offices, and other things they don't need.

    Important to note, that the water in Cement Creek was declared unfit to drink pretty much before anyone started mining, and as you said, there were no trout in the upper Animas at the time. This means you can expect to pay for a water treatment plant to eternity. Heavy metals have been leaking out of the ground for millions of years.

    Good luck with the new claim holder.