Thursday, August 13, 2015
Between 1981 and sometime in the late 1990s, I visited the abandoned mining town of Animas Forks, Colorado a number of times. Enough times, in fact, that I've lost track. I'm pretty sure I was there in 1981 and I know I was there twice in 1983. I was definitely there sometime in the mid-1990s because it's where Fritz got appendicitis and I was there at least one other time. I was there because I was with the summer programs of the Cottonwood Gulch Foundation, first as a camper and later as a staff member. Animas Forks is cool. It's a logical jumping off point for hiking Handies Peak, a 14,000 foot mountain. There are old buildings and the ruins of a mine and mill. You can see them here.
My brother camped with me in Animas Forks in 1983. He was bummed because we weren't camping where he used to camp when he was at the Gulch (as we call it), a different abandoned mining town further downstream called Eureka. Eureka wasn't a good place to camp in the 80s anymore. It was too close to Silverton which was becoming a big tourist destination. Many folks were jeeping up the trail to check out Eureka. By the mid-1990s, the jeepers were making it all the way to Animas Forks. In the 80s, when I camped there, we never saw another person anywhere nearby. By the last time I camped there a decade or so later, the passing jeeps kept us up half-the night. And conquering a fourteener felt a little less awesome when someone could jeep almost to the top.
I hadn't thought about Animas Forks much until recently. If the word Animas seems familiar, it's because the Animas river, whose two branches converge in Animas Forks has been in the news a lot lately. The EPA was trying to remediate a toxic mine site that was leaking a plume of 50 to 250 gallons per minute. However, something went wrong and they ended up releasing a plume of 3 million gallons of mine waste. It first turned the river orange and later a kind of green. If you know your chemistry, you'll recognize that orange is from iron and the green is from copper. Both were in the ground. Normally, rainwater passes over these minerals without a problem as it percolates through the ground. But a mine introduces oxygen underground, and the rainwater combines with sulfur in the ground in the presences of oxygen to create sulfuric acid. This leaches the iron and copper out of the rocks and into the water. Contaminants from the workings and tailings of the mine and mill, like arsenic, present less visible but more dangerous problems. The iron and copper aren't that big a deal, they are unsightly but can be settled out. In Pennsylvania, we are even experimenting with recovering metals from settlement ponds to help pay for mine clean-up operations. The bigger problem is the acidity of the water, which kills micro- and macro-biota and the aresinc and other toxins. However, biologists report that they are optimistic. The ecosystem was mostly made up of toxic resistant species. It's not very diverse, but it's hardy.
Durango, Colorado is getting a lot of press. National reporters have been covering the impact on Durango's tourism and in particular the rafting business there. Call it hunch, but the rafts will be floating on the Animas soon enough, and the larger tourist industry in Durango is barely feeling any pain. Already national green activists are using the incident to call for better legal regulation than the 1872 mining law which is barely a regulation at all.
Downstream water users have been getting less coverage. In particular, the Navajo reservation users have been barely a blip on the national coverage. (In fairness, Time, CNN, and the LA Times each had one story that focused on the Navajo Nation). Nobody connected this spill to earlier toxic accidents like the Churchrock uranium tailings dam spill that was one of the largest nuclear accidents in US history and still hasn't been remediated.
As Andrew Needham showed in his excellent book Power Lines, the mining and tourism economies are more closely connected than they initially appear to be. The beneficiaries of both tend to be the same people. It's likely that the Navajo folks whose crops are going to die without Animas River water, whose children and sheep will be drinking contaminated water (or be forced to travel miles every day to get clean water) will pay the price long after people in Durango start telling stories about the plume as an old-timer's "where you here when" tale and it's merely a memory. It's a sad story for the Navajo, but what's worse is it's an old one. And it keeps repeating, never as farce always as tragedy.