For towns like Durango, one of the hubs of southwestern Colorado, summer tourism is essential. People come from all over the country to spend money on the awe-inspiring mountain views, the fishing and water sports or simply to enjoy the Durango experience. If tourism doesn’t pay the bills for this picturesque mountain town, it most assuredly picks up the lion’s share of the tab.
That’s why the image of a mustard-yellow Animas River that went viral a week ago had the town in a near panic. The river, a 126 mile water way, was infected with a three-million gallon deluge of contaminated water drained accidentally from the nearby but long-abandoned King Gold Mine.
A contracted Environmental Protection Agency crew, using heavy equipment to pump out and treat the mine’s built-up pond of dirty water, dug where it shouldn’t have. The residue gushed a poison flow of water containing lead, cadmium, arsenic, magnesium and iron. The contamination first found refuge in Cement Creek before breaking free to taint the bustling Animas.
Because most of the state’s mines – active or long dormant – are above 9,000 feet, when they leak, the water flows down and into places like Durango, nearby Farmington, New Mexico or Native American reservation lands that straddle both states.
The speed of the August 5th leak caught everyone by surprise. A picture snapped by a local photographer showed three kayakers suddenly afloat in a clearly unhealthy pool of yellow instead of the river’s normal mountain green. Other images, including a number shot from high above the Animas, show a river resembling a giant yellow snake slithering its way to Durango and beyond.
Within days of the spill, the waste that had transformed the river’s color into a grotesque shade of yellow had dissipated allowing it to return to its normal color. The improvement was such that Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, who had put on hold capital business to go to the site, took part in a photo-op that had him drinking water from the Animas. To eliminate any possibility of giardia, a microscopic parasite that lives in mountain flows, Hickenlooper added an iodine tablet – which kills the parasite – to his water bottle thirty minutes before taking a drink.
The state of Colorado has pledged a half-million dollars to aid in the cleanup and to assist those who may have lost business as a result of the spill. EPA Director Gina McCarthy, who also visited the site as well as towns in New Mexico and Utah also affected by the spill, assured locals that the spill would be thoroughly investigated and that her department would assume full responsibility for the problem along with damages.
“I believe it’s somewhere between calamity and disaster,” said Tom Cech, Director of One World, One Water Center at Denver’s Metropolitan State University, of the recent spill. “But it’s definitely a tragedy.” Making matters worse, he said, is that the spill was preventable. But he also cautions that full health of the river – or other Colorado rivers – should not be taken for granted because mining is a dirty business and there are literally thousands of abandoned mines throughout the Colorado high country and all are chock-full of poisonous chemicals.
But chemicals, including lead and iron, are also part of nature, said Colorado School of Mines Professor Ronald Hewitt-Cohen. “This was a spill of nasty material and treated judiciously.” He says nature did its job and diluted most of the toxicity from the spilled chemicals and, he believes, present little harm downstream.
But downstream includes farmers and ranchers who depend on water from the Animas which merges into the San Juan. Ranching families, including the Gomez and Jacques who have been in the area for more than a hundred years, along with Native Americans, simply cannot continue living on the land if their main source of water is poisoned.
Beyond Durango, the biggest population centers affected by the spill were Farmington and Aztec, New Mexico. Farmington is the hub of the Four Corners and the spill was more than serious.
“Our immediate concern,” said Farmington Mayor Tommy Roberts, “was protecting our drinking water.” Roberts knew his city needed to act fast and, in this case, unilaterally. EPA information was slow or non-existent. “We were behind the curve,” said the Farmington native and city chief executive. There was a failure “to notify downstream users.” The first EPA notification of trouble, he said, did not arrive for “a full 24 hours after the initial leak.”
In a recent telephone interview, Roberts said public health became the top priority. “We shut intake valves in our municipal water supply,” he said. At the same time, Roberts had staff make certain that essential information get shared quickly. “Our team responded promptly and disseminated information to the public.”
Roberts said costs to ensure public health will hit his city’s budget but, right now, he has no idea what the final bill will be. “We extended manpower, equipment and materials and we will continue to build up expenses,” he said. “We’re confident that we will be compensated.”
But costs go beyond municipalities. Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman has met with her counterparts in New Mexico and Utah and legal action to make the states whole is an option. All three states filed disaster declarations.
In an interview with The Denver Post, Coffman expressed her disappointment with the EPA. “The statements by the (EPA’s administrator) indicate the EPA is accepting responsibility for the accident. The question is: What does that mean?”
Because the worst of this spill seems to be over, concerns about the poisons contaminating lakes and reservoirs farther west have generally evaporated. By the time any of this water makes its way too far, said Hewitt-Cohen, “it should be diluted.” But, he cautions, that should not necessarily make anyone feel confident about the future.
Hewitt-Cohen bases this opinion on the fact that this is not the first time that there has been a serious spill of polluted water into the Animas. He says two significant spills in the mid and late 70’s took place. He also predicts that this recent spill may not be the last. “It’s a time bomb and the longer we wait to address this issue of abandoned mines that are leaking into our waterways, the more these things are going to happen.” The cost for cleaning up thousands of mines in Colorado and throughout the West would be prohibitive. “We couldn’t afford it.”
But federal assurances inspire little confidence with Russell Begay, Navajo Nation President. The San Juan River, he said, not only provides a spiritual connection to tribal members but an economic one, as well. He fears that it could be “decades” before the river once again flows in full health.