The toxic Colorado river spill and the menace of old hard-rock mines

Keena Kimmel's bookshop occupies a cozy curve along the Animas River, a place of wild sunflowers and lilacs where fisherman try their luck and kayakers glide under iron bridges.

But this weekend the river was empty and Kimmel's heart broken.

"Years ago I was passing through on the way to Oregon and ended up staying because it was so beautiful," she said, gazing over the vacant waters. "I can't believe what's happened. I guess I'm still kind of in shock."

Shock, sadness and anger have gripped this pretty college town in southwestern Colorado as residents struggle to understand the slow-moving environmental disaster that has transformed their crystal clear Animas River — or the River of Souls, translated from its Spanish name — into a ribbon of mustard yellow sludge.

The tragedy in Durango underscores the persistent menace of defunct hard-rock mines, lingering like cancers across the American landscape.

And for those with livelihoods put on hold, or possibly destroyed, by the spill, seeing the disaster unfold is made even more difficult because the culprits were their own government.

On Wednesday, the Environmental Protection Agency was supervising the draining of contaminated water from the defunct Gold King Mine above the town of Silverton. The water suddenly surged, overwhelming the crew and spilling into a tributary leading to the Animas River. The EPA initially estimated the spill at 1 million gallons, but tripled it to 3 million gallons Sunday.

A slew of heavy metals — cadmium, aluminum, copper and perhaps even arsenic — turned the water a sickly fluorescent yellow. Local officials immediately ordered the river shut down.

"I want to come clean here," EPA Regional Administrator Shaun McGrath said at a public meeting in Durango on Friday. "Our initial assessment of this was inappropriate in that we did not know what we were dealing with here. Some of our earlier comments may have sounded cavalier about the impact to public health and wildlife."

McGrath said at a public meeting Sunday that officials had tripled the estimate of the toxic spill based on data from a U.S. Geological Survey water gauge downstream. He said that the leading edge of the plume could no longer be seen from the air and that Cement Creek, which carried the sludge into the Animas, appeared to be running clear.

Durango and La Plata County proclaimed states of emergency Sunday. Gov. John Hickenlooper plans to come to the area Tuesday, officials said.

Meanwhile, the plume has flowed downstream to Aztec and Farmington, N.M., and is expected to reach the San Juan River, Lake Powell and eventually the Colorado River.

"Honestly, it's a complete catastrophe and we don't even understand the full significance of it yet," said Ian Lenney, 23, who studies environmental science at Fort Lewis College in Durango and works at a health food store. "I don't plan to swim in the river for years. I don't plan to eat fish from the river. These heavy metals stick around and get into the food chain. I think you'll see fish and wildlife die-offs."

So far there are no reports of die-offs. In fact, state wildlife officials put out 108 trout in cages throughout the river and reported just one death.

Lenney seemed stunned by the EPA's role in the accident.

"You'd think a federal agency would be a lot more cautious, that there would be double and triple redundancies to prevent something like this," he said. "Who do you run to when your own government is at fault? We are all going to pay. Maybe we set ourselves up for this by not acting to clean these sites sooner."

The danger posed by mines was laid out in a1993 report from the Mineral Policy Center, a Washington think tank dedicated to identifying threats to natural resources. The studysaid there were about 557,650 of these sites in 32 states and 50 billion tons of untreated waste covering public and private land. The waste included arsenic, asbestos, cadmium, cyanide and mercury.

"Mine effluents have already polluted 12,000 miles of the nation's waterways and 180,000 acres of our lakes and reservoirs and are a growing threat to underground aquifers," the report said.

About 40% of all Western headwater streams are polluted by old hard-rock mines, the EPA has said. Colorado has 22,000 such mines, ranking third behind Arizona and Nevada. Cleaning them up is difficult because the owners are often dead or unknown. Even if they are alive, many fear making matters worse by trying to remedy the situation, as the EPA just did.

Early mining techniques were all about speed and efficiency, with little or no regard for the environmental consequences.

For example, the Sierra Fund's 2008 report titled "Mining's Toxic Legacy" said that millions of gallons of mercury were used to extract gold from ore and that untold tons of waste rock were left to leak their toxic contents into rivers and streams.

And as Gold King shows, the legacy lives on.

Many here believe the EPA had good intentions in trying to clean out the mine but faulty methods. And those methods could cost the city and entire region for years to come. The heavy metals in the plume will settle to the river bottom and get stirred up again and again by rains and runoff.

"We will have to do long-term monitoring and probably more closures in the future," said the EPA's McGrath.

That could be bad news for those who make their living on the 126-mile-long river.

"It's difficult emotionally and economically to see the river damaged like that," said Alex Mickel, owner of Mild to Wild, Durango's biggest rafting company. "We were doing 230 people a day until Wednesday. We have already had to cancel hundreds of reservations."

Mickel expects the EPA to compensate him for his loss, which he estimates at $150,000 so far.

"They tried to do the right thing but failed to follow their own procedures — they admitted that — so they need to help the community economically," he said.

The waters have eerily changed colors as the plume advances, going from canary yellow to mustard to brown. "To tell you the truth, what happened here is sickening," said resident Nathan Arnold, 30. So many people depend on the river: fishing guides, hotel workers, kayak operators, farmers.

"The river is the lifeblood of the Four Corners," Arnold said, referring to the area where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah meet.

The big question is whether the river will come back.

"At one point in the 1950s, the Animas was declared dead, and then it became a gold medal trout stream 30 years later," Mickel said. "I don't think we will need to wait another 30 years."

Looking at the jaundiced river on Saturday, it was hard to imagine revival any time soon.

Not only were the people missing, so were the birds and other animals. Earlier that morning, a group of people prayed at the water's edge for divine help in healing the river. They too were awaiting answers.

Kelly is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Connie Stewart in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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