It’s back – the color of dread.
The mustard hue that triggered global headlines after last summer’s Gold King Mine spill has returned to parts of Southwest Colorado’s Animas River.
As much as Durango business boosters strive to put the August 2015 disaster behind them, some locals see this week’s especially yellow flows as a reminder of the questions still lingering about the impact on their watershed.
“That kind of discoloration makes people around here nervous. Everybody’s on edge about what it means,” says Dan Olson, executive director of San Juan Citizens Alliance, a local environmental group.
In the Durango area, most folks have a personal connection to the Animas, which courses from the site of the Gold King spill near Silverton through the middle of Durango down through Southern Ute tribal lands and then the Navajo Nation. Locals and recreation companies kayak, tube, raft and fish the river. Farmers and ranchers irrigate with it. Tourists flock to watch its wildlife. Families skip rocks in its still waters. College kids skinny dip at night. And this Memorial Day weekend alone, dozens of couples are scheduled to marry along its banks.
Springtime usually brings changes to the river’s color. Snowmelt and spring rains carry in muddy and sandy runoff and stir up sediment that had settled on the bottom. What this week’s particular tinge of yellow means depends on whom you speak with.
“To me, it looks just like it does every year at this time,” says Jack Llewellyn, executive director of the Durango Chamber of Commerce.
Llewellyn’s downtown office – whose live “web cam,” linked here, is trained on the Animas – has a view of Durango’s white water park and the kayakers who’ve lately been frequenting it.
“To me, that says people aren’t concerned,” he says.
Environmental lawyer and recreational boater Travis Stills isn’t drinking the business community’s Kool-Aid about the river.
Stills says the stiller water in the Animas Valley north of Durango is a far brighter yellow than the roiling white water downtown, and less natural looking than the browner, more orange color that typically comes with spring runoff.
“The yellow water that’s occurring now, which looks a lot like the water from the spill, is an obvious sign that twenty years of denial by the business community have contaminated our river. It’s a reminder that we have a massive problem at the headwaters of the Animas and have a lot of work to do getting the full weight of the federal government behind the cleanup,” Stills says.
La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt agrees that the river’s water this spring doesn’t resemble typical seasonal discolorations.
“It’s strikingly different this year. And of course it is. We had a major mine spill that we’re going to be seeing for a while,” she says.
On August 5 last year, about three million gallons of waste water spilled from the Gold King Mine after contractors hired by the Environmental Protection Agency were excavating an old mine drain that was filed with water. The waste was laden with more than 875,000 pounds of arsenic, cadmium, lead and other heavy metals.
Gold King is just one of about 300 mines that risk fouling the Animas.
Addressing the problem, as Lachelt, Stills and others see it, partly means persuading the EPA to designate the string of abandoned mines near Silverton as a Superfund site. Members of the public have until June 6 to comment on the EPA’s proposal to add the so-called Bonita Peak Mining District (see map) to its National Priorities List. The designation would make the area eligible for much-needed federal cleanup funding.
“What happened at Gold King taught this community that there are hundreds of mines that are threatening our river. It’s time, after all these years, to finally address those threats,” Lachelt says. “The public needs to weigh in.”
Gov. John Hickenlooper supported the proposed EPA listing earlier this year. Several business interests – especially mine owners – are opposing the federal designation.
Bill Murray, who runs the EPA’s Superfund program in Colorado, didn’t respond to inquiries for this story. His bosses in DC are expected to decide on the designation this summer.
In the meantime, Durangoans are left wondering about the health of the river they rely on for their economy, recreation and quality of life. Confused by tomes of sometimes conflicting water quality data from local, state and federal regulators, many have turned to the non-profit Mountain Studies Institute for answers.
The Durango-based independent research center started monitoring spring run-off in mid-February when locals were asking questions about why the river looked unusually muddy. Tests of river water samples drawn in February, March and April have shown mixed results. Metals of concern for human health were found in relatively safe concentrations, but were elevated beyond normal levels.
In March and April, levels of manganese surpassed state drinking water standards, although Durango doesn’t use the river as a source for drinking water during spring runoff. And at several points this spring, concentrations of aluminum and iron surpassed standards to protect aquatic life, but were at levels that aren’t out of range for years prior to the Gold King spill.
The Institute took water samples last week when river water was especially turbid and looked yellower than normal in certain spots. Results aren’t yet in.
“The historic data indicates this spring is pretty normal in terms of water quality,” says Marcie Bidwell, executive director of the Institute, which is holding a public meeting on the issue tomorrow.
The strong message from Durango’s business community: The sky isn’t falling.
“A change in color doesn’t automatically mean that everybody should be overly concerned that metals are in the water or that there’s some sort of health or environmental risk. Color is not what we should be using as the gauge,” says Ty Churchwell, the Colorado backcountry coordinator for Trout Unlimited – and the environmentalist business leaders count on to quell fears about the river.
San Juan Citizens Alliance’s Olson is irked that “some in community are rushing to say everything’s just fine.”
“I understand that there are well-intentioned people who want to believe in the health of this river. But they need to understand that, after what happened last summer and what has happened after decades of mine waste contaminating the river, fears are perfectly legitimate. To dismiss people’s concern, at this point, is wrong.” Olson added.
About ten months after the Gold King spill, locals are closely watching the Animas. Like checking the skin tone of a child who has been sick, they look to the color of its water to gauge its health. Naturally, they’re worried about the river they love. Any change in hue triggers fear of another disaster.
“That’s the psychological impact of a toxic spill,” Olson said. “We’re trying to grapple with what is the new normal.”
Photo credit: Travis Stills