A river of toxic tears

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As the Environmental Pollution Agency — as it is being referred to anywhere downstream of Silverton — tripled the estimate of toxic water spill this week from the Gold King Mine into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River, the Animas was passing its orange glow from Colorado into New Mexico.
Eerily, Dave Taylor of Farmington, New Mexico, wrote the Silverton Standard and The Miner a few weeks ago and virtually predicted this disaster. Taylor, a professional geologist for 47 years, concluded that the Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to divert leakage from the mine to holding pools would absolutely result in catastrophe.
Taylor predicted the effort to plug the 500 gallons per minute of exfiltrating water from the mine would backfill the interconnected mine system in the region, and within "seven to 120 days," he wrote, all of the 500 gallons per minute would seep out through new waterways.
Water, after all, tends to find the path of least resistance. "Contamination may actually increase due to disturbance and flushing action within the workings," Taylor said.
"Initially it will appear that the miracle fix is working. 'Hallelujah!,'" Taylor deadpanned.
He went on to predict that the EPA's efforts would cause toxic water to infiltrate ground water wells and urged anyone with a well or spring to take water samples now to protect themselves.
Instead, the EPA's contractor took the short route, punched a hole in and burst the containment bridge and the deluge erupted, swelling Cement Creek with toxic mine mush, then contaminating and discoloring the Animas River below its path.
The higher water levels in the Animas have receded, and the banks are now lined with an orange slime made up of a toxic soup of arsenic, cadmium, lead and other metals. Next spring, the roiling runoff will surely stir the sediment soup and once again stir reminders of abandoned mines and the negligent EPA.
State Sen. Ellen Roberts, quoted by the New York Times, said about the Animas: "It is not just a scenic destination, it is where people literally raise their children." She shed tears as she recounted having dropped her father's ashes into the river.
There are about 200 abandoned mines in the Animas watershed. Cleaning and restoring these mines has been a source of argument for some. On the one hand it is a dire need, on the other hand it is a source of denial in defense of the damage that can occur from mining.
Silverton struggled last year with the thought of wearing the distinction of Superfund by the EPA. Residents warned that the designation might stymie tourism and kill any future mining activity in the region. For some in Silverton, mining is still one of the best options to a vital economy.
But inaction didn't stop the leakage from running into the Animas and upper waterways. According to an April 22, 2014 Durango Herald article, between 2005 and 2010, three out of four of the fish species that lived in the Upper Animas died. Insect and bug species plummeted. The river that Roberts shed tears over was getting more and more sick.
The Herald reported that a limestone water treatment plant could have been constructed and would have cleaned the water and was proposed, but it would have cost taxpayers between $12 million and $17 million to build and $1 million a year to run — in perpetuity. The mine owners had no money left to chip in.
Whether these abandoned mines were slowly killing the Animas, or it was washed in waste in one massive burst, the Animas, the lifeblood of so many who depend on her in the Silverton-Durango region and beyond into New Mexico, was not well.
Should the EPA be blamed and held accountable for the accident? Sure. Let's not forget, this is the same EPA that pushed criminal prosecution of the captain of the Exxon Valdez and does its best to fine and make examples out of the smaller guys who do far less than raise the arsenic and lead levels of the Animas by 3,000 times normal levels.
The Navajo Nation has already begun a lawsuit, and more will surely be on the way. What will the EPA do? Pay them, of course. What else can it do? It won't want to argue its own mistake. The agency says it takes responsibility for this, and they will with our tax dollars. Many in the agency should take accountability with their jobs, as well.
On the other hand, some argue there's enough blame to go around for the state of the Animas, the thousands of soon-to-be polluted ground wells and the harm done to businesses. The longstanding and continuing argument: the Animas and the upper tributaries were headed to disaster slowly but surely anyway.
As Taylor noted in the Standard, the threat for a disastrous outcome has been there for years. What he didn't say was if left alone, the threat would not just miraculously go away.
Like it or not, it's time to deal with these mines and the river now.

Alan Todd is co-publisher of the Ouray County Plaindealer. Reach him at atodd@ouraynews.com