Sometimes, the strangest ties bind tightest


In April, Colorado lawmakers approved a bill to fund emergency cleanups at legacy mine sites. The legislation was in response to the August 2015 wastewater spill from the Gold King Mine above Silverton, in the San Juan Mountains, which sent a 3-million-gallon slug of psychedelic-orange toxic fluid down the Animas and Colorado rivers and into neighboring states. Later that month, U.S. senators summoned the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Gina McCarthy, to testify on the agency’s role in the catastrophe. Today, the disaster still commands the public’s attention.

When the Gold King blowout occurred, High Country News Senior Editor Jonathan Thompson was just downstream, in Durango. He tweeted news of the spill, took pictures of the contaminated water, and wrote a post on our website that went viral. By the end of the year, readers had spent some 19,000 hours on the story, making it one of our most popular ever. It even inspired one reader to pen a poem in the comments section that began:

“First betrayal in 1872
with a law that said mining is free.
Ulysses Grant urged: ‘Do whatever you
want’ to companies — who replied, ‘Yippee!’ ”

HCN Managing Editor Brian Clavert

Our interest in the story should come as no surprise; after all, High Country News was born as the first waves of environmentalism swept across the country in the 1970s. But recently a few readers have wondered about some of the topics we’ve covered lately — including the complicated network behind the latest Sagebrush Rebellion, and the cultural secrets of the national parks — asking us how far afield the magazine intends to wander. Not too far, I would say. We remain devoted to our core environmental values, such as clean water, clean air and healthy ecosystems, but we can’t really cover those issues without documenting the region’s changing economics and culture, which ultimately have a major impact on the environment.

The ties between environment, industry and culture tend to bind tightly, as reflected in this issue’s cover story. In it, Thompson examines not only Silverton’s long struggle to address the persistent pollution of acid mine drainage, but also the town’s cultural, economic and even psychological connection to hardrock mining. Meanwhile, in Portland, Oregon, writer Julia Rosen introduces us to an unlikely ecological detective — tree moss — which can tell us a lot about a city’s air pollution. And HCN editorial intern Lyndsey Gilpin writes about the political dimensions of land protection and pollution control in California. There, the removal of key leaders in two of the state’s environmental protection agencies may signal the rise of more pro-development leadership. Taken together, these stories remind us that the West’s environmental health will always be enmeshed with that of its people, cultures and economies. And that story is unlikely to change.

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