Animas dispatch: Hundreds celebrate the river’s reopening

Durango may be moving on, but wider fears about the toxic spill still reverberate.

 

Yesterday evening I was driving to Durango’s Animas River to celebrate the town’s resilience after 3 million gallons of toxic waste spilled from an upstream mine, when a National Public Radio story came over the air: Downstream in Navajo Nation, irrigation canals were still shut off, teary-eyed farmers were driving 70 miles to haul water, and as KUNM later reported, the water that the Environmental Protection Agency provided them was allegedly tinged with petroleum. “It's going to be a long struggle,” rancher Irving Shaggy told NPR

But in Durango — a river town where the median home value is $367,900 — hundreds of jubilant people gathered yesterday to kayak, raft, canoe, tube and even swim as the Animas reopened after 11 days of being closed to the public. This isn’t to diminish the town’s celebration: Durango business owners, farmers and residents were seriously impacted by the spill, and the fact that the river was declared safe less than two weeks after it ran mustard-orange is certainly cause for relief. Instead, the dichotomy highlights the complexity of an incident that’s become an international media sensation. Durango may be moving on, but the spill’s reverberations are still echoing.

In many reports, the spill has been painted as an environmental disaster caused by the EPA, but as HCN senior editor Jonathan Thompson explains, the reality runs much deeper. At Durango’s river parade reopening, the response was mixed. On one hand, a trio of rafters in imitation Hazmat suits yelled “f—- the EPA!” On the other, I heard a kayaker offhandedly comment to a friend that “everyone knows the river’s fine, dude. If it wasn’t fine, would we be here?”

Most people, however, fell somewhere in the middle, optimistic but still a little nervous. Parents at the put-in acknowledged that water quality testing proved the river has returned to pre-spill conditions, but hesitated to let their kids wade into the eddy. (And pre-spill conditions, it should be noted, were hardly pristine either.) “The river’s still sick,” said Andy Corra, co-owner of 4Corners Riversports and an organizer of the parade. “But the river will bounce back. It’s a significant event, but it’s not catastrophic.” 

Science corroborates Corra’s analysis. At its worst, near the headwaters, the river’s pH was 4.8, or roughly equivalent to a cup of black coffee. Perfectly clear water has a pH of around 7, and in Durango, the Animas’ pH briefly dropped from 7.8 to 5.8 6.8, according to the Mountain Studies Institute, then returned to normal. Of 108 trout placed in a cage in the river, only one died; after a tailings dam was breached in 1975, every fish died within 24 hours. New Mexico has independently declared that drinking water system intakes and recreation can resume, and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper went so far as to drink a bottle of Animas River water last week to alleviate fears. 

Yet public skepticism lingers over the river’s rebound. During the initial spike, lead levels were almost 12,000 times higher than federal standards, and arsenic 800 times higher. Some of the heavy metals were flushed downstream and diluted, but others sunk to the river bottom and may be stirred up in the future. Long-term impacts to human and riparian health are still unclear, and Navajo Nation announced it will sue the EPA for damages. 

  • Hundreds of people turned out to raft, canoe, kayak, tube and even swim in the newly reopened Animas yesterday.

    Krista Langlois
  • A girl shows off a frog she caught in the Animas River, just 11 days after it was closed to the public.

    Krista Langlois
  • A kayaker examines goop from the bottom of the Animas River during yesterday's reopening parade.

    Krista Langlois
  • Tubers on the Animas River on Tuesday.

    Krista Langlois

Meanwhile, Corra and others say that the silver lining of the whole mess has been the national spotlight on the problem of inactive and abandoned mines in Colorado and other Western states. Altogether, there are more than 500,000 such mines, and little money to clean them up. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., recently said he’ll reintroduce a Good Samaritan bill that would give third parties who want to clean up old mines legal protection, while Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., introduced a bill that would establish an 8 percent royalty on new mines, a 4 percent royalty on existing ones and a reclamation fee of 7 cents per ton of mined rock, then use a portion of the money to clean up abandoned mines. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., announced an upcoming companion bill in the Senate, but so far, no Republicans have signed on. 

Yesterday on the Animas, though, those looming battles seemed far from peoples’ minds. In typical Durango fashion, the put-in was a melee of dogs, kids, Chaco sandals, artisanal trucker hats, costumes and air horns. There was a kid kayaking with a broken leg (his dad carried the crutches across the top of his own kayak) and a mule who swam the river with two tubes on either side of her, like saddlebags. Further downstream, kids played in calm pools with water guns. Onlookers cheered from every bridge. And tourists like Cindy McCoy, of Richmond, Virginia, weren’t worried about the residual pollution. 

Neither was I. The river was back to its cloudy green color, and though it was low, the ride was still splashy. The first time I took a hit to the face, several moments passed before I remembered I was supposed to be worried. By the end of the trip, everything felt so normal that I leapt out of my kayak into shin-deep water without even thinking. But when I got home, the first thing I did was take a good, hot shower. 

Krista Langlois is an HCN correspondent based in Durango, Colorado.