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The dark secrets of the Animas River

A 2015 spill that turned the waterway orange is a reminder of mining’s disastrous legacy.

“The farmers along the Animas River are sitting down and permitting the waters of that river to be so tainted and polluted as that soon it will merit the name of Rio de las Animas Perdidas, given it by the Spaniards. With water filled with slime and poison, carrying qualities which destroy all agricultural values of ranchers irrigated therefrom, it will be truly a river of lost souls.”                                   —Durango Wage Earner, 1907


I was maybe 6 years old, and the pungent aroma of the season’s first cutting of hay still lingered in the air on my grandparents’ farm in the Animas River Valley in southwest Colorado. My father led my older brother and I on a walk, stopping occasionally to point out a stalk of asparagus just gone to seed, a red-tailed hawk floating overhead, telling us what it was and looking at us with warm brown eyes to make sure we understood. We ambled past a raspberry patch and cornfield, then the low, whitewashed milk house and the rickety hay barn, through a gaping, dank culvert. The culvert had been built to divert the Animas’ floodwaters under the highway that led to Durango, five miles to the south, but to a 6-year-old boy, it felt like the gates to the underworld.

Beyond the culvert, the river ran slow, lazing through sandbanks and wetlands and cottonwood groves, bending back on itself, as though to rest from its tumultuous southward tumble from the nearby San Juan Mountains. Sand gathered on the outside of the sharpest bends, creating beaches like the one we called the Sandbar, where we fished and played and picnicked and camped.

I didn’t have a fishing pole, so that day, my dad cut a long willow branch, to which he added fishing line, a lead sinker and red-and-white bobber, and a worm on a hook. I would throw the bait as far as I could, which probably wasn’t that far, but then it didn’t really matter. I gently held the line, until I felt the telltale tug that prompted me to grab the branch and sprint up the beach. I turned back to see a trout on the line, flopping in the sand, its scales shiny like mica. I picked up the fish, felt its weight, its power, its will to live, and watched for a moment as its scarlet gills fluttered in the sun. “Don’t let it suffer like that,” my dad said, bending down and gently but firmly taking hold of the gasping fish. He struck it against a driftwood log, and it twitched a few more times before it stilled. Blood trickled from its mouth. From the trees, cotton fell like snow.

Just downstream from the sandbar there was a place where the riverbanks got steeper and the water darker, and cottonwood branches jutted like bleached bones from the current, which whispered in what I imagined to be ancient tongues. Stand too close, my grandmother warned, and the bank would give way and you’d fall in, the undertow pulling you deep down into the cold, where you would join the lost souls, the animas perdidas of the river’s name.

My grandmother did not mention the other dark secrets of those waters. She could not have known that on an August day four decades later, 3 million gallons of toxic water would come bursting out of the Gold King Mine, turning our beloved river a psychedelic shade of orange for miles downstream, reminding us of the myriad ways our world has come unhinged, of the transgressions we’ve committed against the land, the water, the air and even ourselves. She never told us that the real lost souls of this river are those killed or displaced by our insatiable hunger to pull the riches from this land, to take, take, take and never give back.

In 1955, a 33-year-old doctor named George Moore arrived in Durango, then a town of 7,500 people, to oversee the San Juan Basin Health Department, which served four counties of southwestern Colorado. Moore, who served in the military and later worked in Kathmandu, Nepal, for the U.S. Public Health Service, might have expected a staid office job in a healthy community; instead, he found a leaderless organization in disarray, in a region full of health hazards and illness. Rico, a small mining town to the northwest, had a tuberculosis outbreak. Mesa Verde National Park, an hour away, lacked sanitary drinking water. The Southern Ute Indian Reservation had high rates of obesity, alcoholism, pneumonia, tuberculosis and infant mortality — along with an epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases brought by a recent wave of oil and gas workers.

Navajo miners operate a mucking machine at the Rico Mine in 1953, where pyrite was extracted to use in the manufacture of sulfuric acid for uranium processing.
Special Collections/Center for Southwest Research (UNM Libraries)
The smelter, stack and tailings pile along the Animas River, where uranium was processed.

To top it off, in relatively affluent Durango, a uranium mill and mountain of radioactive tailings loomed along the shores of the Animas. In 1942, the federal government purchased the remains of an old smelter on Durango’s south side and leased the site to the United States Vanadium Corporation, which secretly milled uranium for the Manhattan Project. After the end of World War II, the Atomic Energy Commission bought the site, and Vanadium resumed milling uranium and producing yellowcake.

Moore didn’t like the looks of the operation, so he sent staffers to check it out. They “brought back dead fish heavy with uranium ore,” he later wrote. The mill, he learned, had been giving tailings to area highway departments and construction companies, to use as road base, on streets and sidewalks, and even in homes in Durango’s burgeoning post-war suburbs. He notified his former colleagues at the U.S. Public Health Service, but it took three years before the agency finally sent a team of researchers to assess the situation. What they found was unnerving.

Each day, the mill churned through about 500 tons of ore. The chunks of pale yellow rock were pulverized into a sandy powder, then processed with a chemical soup. One ton of ore yielded around 6 pounds of uranium, the remainder ending up as waste. The Durango mill kicked out some 997,000 pounds of tailings per day, containing leftover uranium, a host of naturally occurring toxic metals, and leaching chemicals, including sulfuric acid, salt and soda ash, tributyl phosphate and kerosene.

Norman Norvelle was in the seventh grade in Farmington, New Mexico, in 1958. His family had moved to the region not long before, and his father was a big fan of the mountains, so nearly every weekend they all drove up the Animas River and past the uranium mill. “The (mill) had several large ponds next to the river that were usually full and a deep green,” Norvelle, a tall man with a friendly demeanor, who worked for years as a scientist with the New Mexico Health Department, told me. “Many times when we drove by the ponds, the dirt walls and dikes retaining the acid process wastewater would be breached. The ponds would be empty, and on the river shore you could see where the contents went into the river.”

What the young Norvelle did not see was a separate liquid waste stream that flowed directly into the river at about 340 gallons per minute, carrying with it at least 15 tons per day of spent ore solids, leftover acid leaching chemicals and an iron-aluminum sludge.

At the time, the Animas and San Juan rivers were the primary drinking water sources for at least 30,000 people downstream. Farmers irrigated thousands of acres of crops with the water, and their cows, sheep and goats drank it. Of all the nasty ingredients, radium-226 — a radioactive “daughter” of uranium, with a half-life of 1,600 years — was of most concern to the researchers.

Radium was discovered by Marie Curie — in ore mined in western Colorado, about 100 miles from Durango, in fact. It was once seen as a sort of miracle substance. Paint it on watch numbers or even clothing, and they’d glow in the dark. It purportedly could cure cancer and impotence and give those who used it an “all-around healthy glow,” as one advertisement put it. During the early 1900s, it was added to medicines, cosmetics and sometimes even food. Makers of the “Radiendocrinator” instructed men (and only men) to wear “the adapter like any ‘athletic strap.’ This puts the instrument under the scrotum as it should be. Wear at night. Radiate as directed.” Radium’s glow dimmed, however, when the women who painted it onto watches began dying, and the inventor of the Radiendocrinator was stricken with bladder cancer. We now know that radium is highly radioactive and a “bone-seeker,” meaning that when it is ingested it makes its way to the skeleton, where it decays into other radioactive daughter elements, including radon, and bombards the surrounding tissue with radiation. According to the Toxic Substances and Diseases Registry, exposure leads to “anemia, cataracts, fractured teeth, cancer (especially bone cancer), and death.”

The government scientists sampled river water, milk from cows that drank the water, and crops that were irrigated with river water for 75 miles downstream from the mill. They found that the Animas River was polluted with chemical and radioactive materials. Water, mud and algae samples taken two miles below the mill were 100 to 500 times more radioactive than the control samples taken above the mill. Another 20 miles downstream, farmers were drinking and irrigating with water that was 12 to 25 times as radioactive as the Animas above the mill, double the Public Health Service’s “maximum permissible concentration.”

Water that Norvelle drank from the taps in his Farmington home had 10 times the radioactivity of Durango’s tap water. Cabbage, sweet corn, apples and other crops from downstream farms tested similarly high in radioactivity. Downstreamers who drank from the river and ate local food were taking in at least 250 percent of the maximum permissible concentration of radiation. This was added to the strontium-90, another bone-seeker, that wafted in high concentrations over most of the Interior West as a result of the extensive nuclear bomb testing at the Nevada Test Site during the same time period.

The river also had high levels of other toxic metals, both from upstream metal-mining pollution and the uranium mill, and was virtually devoid of “bottom fauna,” such as aquatic bugs and algae, and fish, for nearly 30 miles downstream from the mill. “The river was a pea-green color during low flow near the state line,” Jack Scott, who was in elementary school in Aztec when the study occurred, told me. “The river was mostly dead, except for a few suckers.”

Clearly, the Vanadium Corporation was violating the laws and regulations. But since the same laws were virtually toothless, there was little the feds could do except ask them to stop. Shortly after the results were revealed to the general public, Vanadium officials vowed to build a treatment facility to reduce the poisoning of the Animas River, prompting the government to report that the “situation was brought under control before the population of the area had ingested sufficient amounts of this radioactive material to cause detectable health damage.”

The declaration, while calming, is dubious. By that time, downstreamers had been drinking tainted water for at least a decade, if not more, and no one had done a systematic investigation of the effects on human health. In 1959, Public Health Service officials launched a study to much fanfare, asking Farmington and Aztec school kids to skip the tooth fairy and turn their baby teeth over to them. In return, the children would receive a lapel pin that read: “I gave a tooth for research!”

And yet, there’s no record of the study ever being completed, nor was any other epidemiological study ever done on the downstream residents, who for nearly two decades had consumed radioactive and otherwise poisonous food. Fearing more public outcry and grappling with a drop in uranium prices, Vanadium shuttered the Durango mill in 1963, and moved its operations to Shiprock, New Mexico. There, Vanadium took over the Kerr-McGee uranium mill, constructed in 1954 on the banks of the San Juan River, on the Navajo Nation. It’s hard to see the move as anything but a blatant act of environmental injustice — a continuation of late 19th century policies when Native Americans were forcibly relocated to make way for greedy extractive industries. Nearly everyone for hundreds of miles downstream from the Kerr-McGee mill was Diné. There was no George Moore to sound the alarm, nor government scientists at hand to get to the bottom of pollution problems. In 1960, when Kerr-McGee was operating the mill, one of the evaporation ponds broke, sending at least 250,000 gallons of highly acidic raffinate, containing high levels of radium and thorium, into the river. None of the relevant officials were notified, and people continued to drink the water, put it on their crops and give it to their sheep and cattle. It wasn’t until five days later, after hundreds of dead fish had washed up on the river’s shores for 60 miles downstream, that the public was alerted to the disaster.

Dolph Kuss, a downhill ski coach in Durango in the early 1950s, skis down the Smelter Mountain tailings pile.
Courtesy of the Center of Southwest Studies, Fort Lewis College

When Vanadium Corp. left Durango, it left a festering mess behind. Two huge piles of tailings lay piled up at the mill site, perilously close to the Animas River. No lining was installed below the piles to prevent leaching into the groundwater, and no cap put on the piles to prevent tailings from running off into the water. Wind picked up the fine dust and blew it over the river onto town. The closest neighborhood to the pile was low-income and predominantly Hispanic. Kids played in the tailings, reveling in the sandy beach-like texture; one local told High Country News in 1980 that it was “the biggest, best sandpile in the world.” For a long time, folks would go over to the mill and fill a truck with the tailings, to break up the clay-like soil in gardens, or use in the foundations of homes, or under the concrete sidewalk. In September 1970, a huge rainstorm dumped onto the San Juans and sent torrents running down the Animas River, swelling it to double the volume of the peak spring runoff. The rushing waters didn’t quite reach the bottom of the uranium tailings piles, but the event reminded residents of the potential for such a catastrophic event.

I was born in a Durango hospital just days after the floodwaters subsided, and while I was still an infant, my family moved from a little trailer on my grandparents’ farm into a house in town, a couple of blocks from the river and about one mile north (upstream) of the old uranium mill and its tailings piles.

The river, which twisted through Durango like a scoliotic spine, was our playground. We spent hours on the Animas, wading, swimming, fishing and chasing minnows. We’d dislodge old cottonwoods that had drifted downriver, drag them into the current, and grip them with our skinny legs, riding maybe 20 yards before the log bucked us into the icy waters. My brother, a trout-whisperer of sorts, reeled in a half-dozen fish a day, feeding the family all summer long. When we got older, we’d head to the river on warm summer nights, strip down and leap from the footbridge into the deep, dark cold.

We mostly had the river to ourselves. But always, in the background, the tailings piles loomed. We traversed the rocky banks of the river just below, where rattlesnakes posed a more immediate danger than radon or thorium. Occasionally, on nights after a snowy winter storm, people would sneak up the piles and ski down their steep slopes, illuminated under the orange glow of streetlights. When I was 8 years old, 15 years after the Durango mill stopped operating, a scientist examined river-bottom sediment downstream from the old mill site. One sample registered 800 picocuries-per-gram (pCi/g) of radium-226, which is 160 times the Environmental Protection Agency’s limit for drinking water, and at least as radioactive as a typical uranium mill’s wastewater.

In the late 1970s, when I was still a boy, a local doctor named Scott McCaffrey noticed what seemed to be an unusually high number of lung cancer cases in town. When state health department researchers took a closer look, they determined that McCaffrey’s statistics were off, but they did notice anomalies on the south side of town, where folks were being dosed with elevated levels of radon-222, which can cause lung cancer. They cautioned against alarm, claiming the sample size was too small to be conclusive. A more systematic epidemiological study was never performed.

My father was a writer and an intellectual jack-of-all trades. But more than that, he was a resident of this particular region, and as such he tended to get dragged into other positions. In the late ’70s, he was elected to the Durango City Council. He and his colleagues were pushing hard to nudge the city out of its fading industrial, extractive past and into what today we might call a New West amenity economy, one that banked on quality of life, cottage industry and tourism. He thought the town should value the river not as a conveniently located dump, but for its intrinsic, ecological and recreational values. I still remember when he brought home plans for the downtown riverfront — with parks and walking paths and restaurants with patios overlooking the water — and how exciting it seemed at the time. Sometime during his term, someone put a big yellow placard atop the mill piles, warning of their radioactive dangers. This upset my dad, though I’m not entirely sure why. I suppose he felt it was alarmist, and that such scaremongering might hamper their efforts to replace the old with the new. No one would want to live in a radioactive town or play in a radioactive river.

In 1986, the Department of Energy finally came in and spent $500 million in taxpayer dollars to clean up the mess — a mess it had originally financed with taxpayer dollars. I was in high school, and I vividly remember going out onto the roof of the school to watch the demolition of the original smelter, its tall brick chimney crumbling into a cloud of dust. The chimney had served as a sort of monument to a hundred years of industry that had built our community; its fall was mourned even then. Over the next five years, the bricks (and all the detritus from mill and smelter) were scraped away and buried just over the hill, less than two miles away as the crow flies. Especially egregious hot spots around town, where tailings had been used for construction, were also cleaned up. But a lot of tailings were left behind and still lurk underneath streets and sidewalks. The site of the once-sprawling industrial complex is now a dog park, and is slated to become the city’s official homeless camp. The place where the radioactive water once poured into the river is the biggest rapid in town, and a favorite of rafters and kayakers alike.

Mills all over that part of the West were cleaned up at around the same time, from Uravan to Grand Junction, and from Rifle to Moab, where the cleanup of the old Atlas Mill continues. At Shiprock, the waste was impounded on-site in a giant tomb-like repository. Yet no matter how many millions of tons of tailings are removed, the toxic legacy endures, somewhere, somehow. Studies in Shiprock have found elevated levels of birth defects, kidney disease, cancers and other persistent health problems. Radioactive, heavy-metal-laden water continues to seep into Many Devils Wash, adjacent to the site of the Shiprock mill, and then into the San Juan River, flummoxing scientists. Groundwater beneath the Durango dog park still swims with high levels of uranium, lead and other contaminants. We can only guess at what lurks in the silt of the Animas riverbed. 

If my father were still alive, I suspect he’d be surprised and even a little baffled by how quickly the people of Durango managed to forget that part of their town’s history — how soon after it was gone they’d pushed not just the tailings and the old mill, but all of that toxic past, into the dark corners of their minds, convincing themselves that it was all safe now, all cleaned up, and that it now made sense to drop a million dollars or more on a house in south Durango — where for decades sulfur-dioxide-tinged train smoke, lead-loaded smelter smoke and radon-tinged dust had settled out of the sky. He had hoped that historic preservation and remembering would not only attract people to the region, but also help us learn from our mistakes. Instead, we got mass amnesia as a form of economic development.

There are those, however, who will never forget. The surviving mill workers whose friends died painful deaths won’t forget. Those who lived downwind or downstream from the mill — anyone whose grandmother, father, aunt or friend died of cancer or kidney failure — will always wonder if it was the tailings, the Nevada nuclear tests, not enough sunscreen or just terrible luck that killed their loved ones.

A dead fish lies in the shallows of the Animas River a week after the spill.
Brent Lewis/The Denver Post via Getty Images

My father was dying. They found cancer in his lungs in the spring of 1997, when he was 56. Over the next winter, the cancer slept, but it returned for springtime, leafing out, blooming mercilessly throughout his body and brain. He sat in his chair by the window and stared out at the Sleeping Ute, at the sky, at the canyon in between. This was something he did long before the sickness invaded his body, but I could never figure out what so raptly held his gaze. I put a garden into the earth outside his little house, hacking away at the claylike soil with tearful ruthlessness. I put drops of morphine on his dried-up tongue, like the Sacrament. I pushed tiny seeds into soft, rich soil, lit his cigarettes and dressed him for chemotherapy and could never get his shoes onto his swollen feet. The seedlings thrived in the warm air of death, grew as he withered.

Cancer took his mother a decade earlier. It would take his younger sister 15 years later. Victims and survivors of the disease are everywhere around here, it seems, in Silverton and Shiprock, Durango and Farmington. We look to the world around us for answers: the plume of fallout from the Nevada bomb tests, the junk pouring from the coal plant smokestacks, the smelters and the mines, the metals and radon wafting in the wind over our towns.

The science and the statistics tell us we’re looking in the wrong places. Sure, living next to an old uranium mill or gas well may elevate your cancer risk, but it’s by an infinitesimally small amount. Studies of the folks living in uranium country at Grants, New Mexico, and Uravan, Colorado, have failed to turn up unusually high cancer rates among the folks who lived near the mills but didn’t work in the mines. And when a cluster is found, the researchers and health officials attribute it to elevated smoking rates, or natural background radiation. We learn that the zinc, lead, cadmium and copper spilling out of the hardrock mines will kill fish, but unless one drinks the chronically orange and acidified waters of Cement Creek every day, the acid mine drainage won’t hurt the humans.

We are Westerners, pathologically independent, pragmatic people. We accept the science, and scold those who put giant, scaremongering signs atop tailings. We scoff at the ones who cringe in fear when they see a river run orange with iron hydroxides, the same stuff that, after all, gives some curry sauces their burnished color. And we’re happy to shoulder the blame for our own demise. The tailings piles didn’t kill my father. He smoked too much, worked too hard, didn’t use sunscreen, had bad genetics or just plain rotten luck. That’s what killed him. And yet a seed of doubt remains, an inkling that something else is going on, something the data cannot reveal.

Roy Etcitty points out debris on the banks of the San Juan River, which catches water from the Animas, following the Gold King Mine spill. Etcitty was among the farmers and residents of the Navajo Nation whose water was shut off after the spill.
Brent Lewis/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Duane “Chili” Yazzie is a Diné farmer, and he irrigates his fields of corn, squash, tomatoes and hay with San Juan River water. The day after the Gold King Mine blew out in August 2015, as word got out about the yellow river, he was out in those fields. Like other farmers downstream from the spill, Yazzie had to shut off the water to his fields and watch his crops wilt under the rainless summer sky. The Environmental Protection Agency sent giant tanks of water for the horses, sheep and goats, but the water arrived in old gas-field tanks, tainted with residue. The plume passed by, the water returned to its regular silty state, and a few weeks after the spill, the EPA and state and county health departments assured everyone along the Animas and San Juan rivers that all was back to normal. They had sampled the waters exhaustively, and the data didn’t lie: The water may not have been pure, but it was no worse than before the spill. It was safe to swim in, fish in, irrigate with and, with proper treatment, drink.

Nine months after the spill, Yazzie stepped up to the lectern at a conference on the Animas and San Juan rivers in Farmington. Most of the other speakers were scientists, engineers or bureaucrats, presenting technical papers on sediment transport, bulkheads and microbial communities. Yazzie, his graying black hair pulled back into a bun, recited a poem he had written, titled “Yellow River.” The poem tells the story of his farm, the Gold King spill and the aftermath — a story of sadness, trauma and desperation — and he read it with force and passion, beat style, like Allen Ginsberg.

“Water is our life,” he intoned. “It’s who we are. … We don’t know what will happen, the water is being shut off. We are confused, anger starting to boil, our elders have sad misty eyes, this is so surreal. … Government sez farmers will get compensated, payday time, lawyers licking their chops. Water tests ok, Rez Prez sez turn on water, EPA steps out, water must be ok, bye, bye.”

Despite the reassurances from the authorities, Diné farmers in the Shiprock Chapter, Yazzie included, refused to use the water. They were so uncertain that they abstained from irrigating their crops for at least a year. Their fields fallowed, corn went unplanted. The scientists and officials were baffled by this and, admittedly, so was I. Even at its peak, the Gold King slug was not especially dangerous. It didn’t kill any fish as far as anyone could tell, and by the time it reached Utah, it wasn’t even distinguishable from the usual San Juan River silt. Why ignore science, at the expense of your crops, maybe even your sustenance?

But when I think of that spring, and my dad, I think that maybe there are some places science just can’t reach. Chemically speaking, the water quality may be no different, but the place — the interaction between the people here and the land and water — I think that did change somehow. Those who value the river the most, who draw physical and spiritual sustenance from its waters, were altered. Once a mountain is mined, it is diminished, a place out of balance, transfigured. When dynamite and draglines chomp apart traditional grazing lands, they take away more than just grass, rocks and shrubs; they shatter a delicate balance that existed between humans and the land for thousands of years. When a cluster of oil wells and holding tanks explodes, rending the night, the place is tainted. This diminishment, or unbalancing, produces a trauma that wends its way into our psyches and into our cells, maybe even our genes.

An orange sludge tinges the Animas River where it runs through Durango, Colorado, days after the August 2015 spill at the Gold King Mine above town.
Jerry McBride/ Durango Herald

About six months after the spill, the University of Arizona Institute of the Environment held a panel discussion to explore the Diné perspective on the Gold King spill. Yazzie, who has become something of an authority on the subject, was a panelist, along with a man named Perry Charley, who is also Diné and a professor at Diné College. Charley grew up in Waterflow, New Mexico, along the San Juan River, not far from two giant coal power plants, and has worked for years on uranium issues on the Navajo Nation. He was a witness to the orange slug coming down the San Juan, and he explained how its effects transcended the data and the science. “My first inclination as a scientist was to go out there and do sampling … but I started to back off, because I knew that this was catastrophic,” Charley said. “I stepped away from being out in the field sampling and … started to think about interpreting data. You and I can sit here and talk about arsenic and talk about manganese and barium … but these chemicals have no word in the Navajo language. They have no meaning. Scientists were looking at the origin of the contamination. … I was looking as a scientist at cultural and traditional aspects — how the Navajo live and how they use the water in their daily lives.

“We are made up of four basic elements: water, land, air and heat,” Charley said. “If any one of these elements is disrupted, we are out of balance with nature. We are out of sync. We are not walking in harmony. We are not walking in beauty. That’s what happened out there.”

I don’t know whether my father walked in beauty or not, but I believe that he spent his life trying to do so, constantly searching for that harmony and balance, in spite of the culture from which he came. And finally, all that searching took its toll.

My father’s body wilted away to a skeleton, his lips dried up and we doused them with sponges, and his arms were no more than loose skin draped on brittle bones. His teeth fell out, one by one. But his hands remained the same. His hands, which had always seemed huge and powerful to me, had somehow been spared from the disease and its equally brutal treatment. His hands that had written thousands of words. His hands that could pull away dried springtime grass on the edge of a mountain meadow to reveal the speckled eggs of a snowy plover. His hands that could coax a lush array of spinach and tomatoes; zinnias and radishes; cosmos and squash from the rocky, red soil in the garden in the backyard of our house in Durango.

I had always assumed it was his mind that gave him his power. But as his life faded, I realized it must have been his hands, for they, more than anything, connected him to his beloved earth, this beautiful land, this unbalanced place — where on spring days, when the wind kicks up, the yellow dust lifted off the tailings piles and drifts, ghost-like, toward the bright blue sky.

Sylas Garippo, age 3, plays on the bank of the Animas River at Santa Rita Park in Durango, Colorado, several days after the spill at the Gold King Mine in August 2015. Sylas normally would play in the water, but the river was closed.
Jerry McBride/ Durango Herald

Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News.

Adapted from River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster. Torrey House Press, 2018.