Animas River spill: only the latest in 150 years of pollution

Mapping the other threats to the Animas and San Juan Rivers.

 


When the Tang-orange plume of acidic water and heavy metal-laden slime blasted out of a mine in southwest Colorado’s San Juan Mountains on Aug. 5, tore through Cement Creek in Silverton, ran into the Animas River and, finally, the San Juan River some 100 miles downstream, it may have seemed like a pristine mountain stream was forever sullied.

That’s not really the case. The Animas River, as clear and clean as it may have looked just prior to the spill, lost its pristine status many years ago, soon after Anglo settlers converged on the region in the 1870s and started tearing up its mountains in search of gold and silver. Since then, the Animas and the San Juan, into which it runs, have been repeatedly battered and abused by the humans who rely on them.

downvalley-jpg
The Animas River Valley above Durango, four days after the Gold King Mine spill.
Jonathan Thompson

The mining industry was probably the most persistent abuser of the watershed. First, there were the tailings dumped in the river, then the billions of gallons of acid mine drainage that have poured from mine adits into streams and, ultimately, into the Animas over the decades. Even after it left the region, the industry continues its abuse: Before the Gold King mine blew 3 million gallons of orange spooge into the watershed this month, it had been discharging similarly tainted water at a rate of 50 to 250 gallons per minute, or more than 100 million gallons per year, into Cement Creek.

But hardrock mining is only one of the watershed’s abusers. The Animas runs right through one of the nation’s most prolific natural gas fields, and coalbed methane wells are common on its shores. The San Juan’s muddy waters flow between two gargantuan coal-fired power plants before passing through uranium mining country and the Aneth oil field. As Dan Olson, director of the conservationist group San Juan Citizens Alliance, told journalists as they flew over the river a few days after the spill: “This is an industrialized landscape.”

It’s not just industry, either. This landscape has also been farmed, grazed and urbanized. More and more people move here every year and put more demands on the rivers, and more stuff into them. In fact, nutrient loading and bacteria levels are so high on the Animas and San Juan in northwestern New Mexico, that Dave Tomko, with the San Juan Watershed Group, was downright blasé about the orange plume moving towards his community. He figured that naturally high pH levels in the San Juan, along with extra releases from Navajo Reservoir upstream, would buffer the impacts of the acidic plume. Tomko’s major concern was for crops that would go thirsty as irrigation intakes were shut down. As far as the plume’s toxic impact, though, he said: “We’ve got bigger issues than this.”

Perhaps the orange plume’s silver lining will be waking people up to the value of their rivers, and to all the ways they’re threatened every day.

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor of High Country News. 

High Country News Classifieds
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    Seeking qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating, implementing and managing land conservation activities,...
  • REGIONAL TRAIL STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with trail maintenance and volunteer engagement...
  • TRAIL CREW MEMBER
    Position Title: Trail Crew Member Position Type: 6 month seasonal position, April 17-October 15, 2023 Location: Field-based; The RFOV office is in Carbondale, CO, and...
  • CEO BUFFALO NATIONS GRASSLANDS ALLIANCE
    Chief Executive Officer, Remote Exempt position for Buffalo Nations Grasslands Alliance is responsible for the planning and organization of BNGA's day-to-day operations
  • IDAHO DIRECTOR - WESTERN WATERSHEDS PROJECT
    Western Watersheds Project seeks an Idaho Director to continue and expand upon WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Idaho, with...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Development Director to join our team in supporting and furthering our mission. This position will create...
  • DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Operations Director to join our team. This position will provide critical organizational and systems support to...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is seeking a leader to join our dynamic team in the long-term protection of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM). We...
  • GRASSLAND RESEARCH COORDINATOR
    The Grassland Research Coordinator is a cooperative position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that performs and participates in and coordinates data collection for...
  • HYDROELECTRIC PLANT
    1.3 MW FERC licensed hydroelectric station near Taylorsville CA. Property is 184 deeded acres surrounded by National Forrest.
  • "PROFILES IN COURAGE: STANDING AGAINST THE WYOMING WIND"
    13 stories of extraordinary courage including HCN founder Tom Bell, PRBRC director Lynn Dickey, Liz Cheney, People of Heart Mountain, the Wind River Indian Reservation...
  • GRANT WRITER
    JOB DESCRIPTION: This Work involves the responsibility of conducting research in the procurement of Federal, State, County, and private grant funding. Additional responsibilities include identifying...
  • MATADOR RANCH STEWARD
    The Matador Ranch Steward conducts annual stewardship projects at the Matador Ranch Preserve and occasionally supports stewardship projects elsewhere in Montana's Northern Great Plains. The...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a motivated individual to help build public support for key strategic initiatives in northern Idaho through public outreach and...
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness Foundation seeks a steward/educator to lead backcountry volunteer projects and community outreach. FT $36k-$40k, competitive time off. ALSO HIRING OPERATIONS MANAGER. More...
  • ASSISTANT RANCH OPERATIONS MANAGER
    WANTED: ASSISTANT RANCH OPERATIONS MANAGER ~ UTAH/COLORADO border ~ Looking to immediately hire an experienced and clean hardworker to join us on a beautiful, very...
  • ASPIRE COLORADO SUSTAINABLE BODY AND HOME CARE PRODUCTS
    Go Bulk! Go Natural! Our products are better for you and better for the environment. Say no to single-use plastic. Made in U.S.A., by a...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in the natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • CORTEZ COLORADO LOT FOR SALE
    Historic tree-lined Montezuma Ave. Zoned Neighborhood Business. Build your dream house or business right in the heart of town. $74,000. Southwest Realty