Notes from a disaster: Part 2

PC411-on-line-ad-for-Navajo-Language-articleAnimas closureCommentary by Janneli F. Miller

Aug 7/8
I can’t sleep. the spill haunts me. I close my eyes only to see that hideous orange-yellow river in my brain imagery. I am obsessed with knowing all that I can, & so much is unknown
You’re the EPA and you don’t realize that if you dump a bunch of toxic sludge in the water it will dissolve & go downstream? Incomprehensible, but this is the response as to why it took them 24 hours to notify the public
I go to the public information meeting at the La Plata County Offices. There is no place to park, the bike racks are full & there are huddles of people crowding the 4 entrances to the room, which is filled – people stand along the walls, sit on the floor – I manage to creep through and get a spot in the floor
They are showing photos of the spill – the gaping mine hole, the snaking orange-yellow ribbon of polluted water, the sludge on the shore & the meeting is live-streaming – websites, radio, the ski area, many businesses in town playing it live for their concerned employees.
First, representatives from the EPA who have flown in from Denver will speak & then they will take questions. Shaun McGrath and David Ostrander provide apologies and explanations. Quotes from their presentations hit local state and national news within minutes.
Video cameras run, children, gray-hairs and plenty of young folks listen anxiously, but everyone is polite as the folks from the EPA do their best to be “forthcoming.”
You read about environmental disasters all the time, but I’ve never had one 2 blocks away from where I live before.  There’s a surreal sense that life as usual can’t go on, but it does – except the river is an ugly opaque mustard and no one is near; instead, people peek over bridges. Dog days of August and no rafting no kayaks no tunes no swimming… A general anxious tone permeates the city.
The first question from the audience is, “What’s in the water?” since lab results are in. “Heavy metals” and they move to the next question, but the audience stirs and mumbles: WHAT heavy metals, exactly? Cadmium, lead, copper, arsenic, aluminum, calcium & no results for mercury & supposedly no cyanide.
The second questioner asks what the EPA is doing to help and protect tribal residents. We learn they are working with the Southern Utes and the Navajo tribes but interestingly this doesn’t end up in any of the mainstream news articles.
Libby Faulk, the PR lady from the EPA, calmly points to members of the audience with raised hands and counts us off.  Why didn’t you know this would happen? What precautionary measures did you take? Who owns the mine & what are they doing? (Privately owned; nothing.) Was the mine operational & will it be? (No, we don’t know what the owner is going to do.) Do you have enough funds for the clean-up?  (yes) Where can the public get information? (on the web and we will have daily briefings). Was your hazard analysis made public for this clean-up? (No) How long will the river be closed? (We don’t know.) What about New Mexico? wonders the mayor of Farmington . What about the water supply and the wells? asks a restaurant owner. What’s in the sludge? What is your plan for the future? On and on, the reporters scribble, people shift in their seats, look worried.
The kingfishers are also haunting me, as well as that family of mergansers I saw on rocks in the murky water.  I raise my hand to ask about the wildlife – all those critters that can’t just stay out of the water? The audience erupts in applause and I am floored.  There is no answer: we don’t know. You tell us – only 1 of the 106 caged hatchery trout died in the first 12 hours.
The other question to get a round of applause is from a young fellow who asks why it took 24 hours to notify the public. Again- “we didn’t realize the serious nature of the incident for those downstream.”
After the meeting, a woman in tears comes up to thank me because she was too upset to ask that question herself. Several people in the crowd give me a thumbs-up. A reporter wants my phone #. I’m quoted in the Durango Herald…
My friend at Mtn Studies Institute has been sampling the water constantly – a baseline before the plume arrived and then every half-hour for the first 2 hours it was here, from 8 p.m. until 12:30 a.m. They need money for testing, their photo shows up on the San Juan Citizens Alliance web page. Actually, SJCA has given the only reasonable response as to what we can do. Educate ourselves, show up, contact your elected officials, demand accountability, speak your mind…
5 p.m.
The water is a sickening color. People still stop on the bridges to snap pictures. The social media are on fire. People hate the EPA. Some people can’t imagine such stupidity; others explain the complexities.  The story has hit the national news & the photo of thethree3 kayakers on the yellow river is on Huffington Post, Newsweek, the AP wire.  Just another environmental disaster – and then it’s on to Trump, the debate, Jon Stewart’s last show…
The narrow-gauge chugs along, the tourists waving and snapping their photos too.
It’s been raining all afternoon and somehow this feels right. Yeah, let that rain pour, let it drizzle softly for hours – can the rain clean this mess up? At least it soothes the soul.
But I still can’t sleep – I hate that color. I’ve seen rivers flush red, brown, white, gray-blue with run-off from the soils upriver. I’ve seen rivers green and light blue and chocolate, but orange?  it’s not right.
The editor of EPIC magazine is sponsoring a healing ceremony for the Animas – 1:30 at the dog park, underneath the Smelter Mtn. Manhattan Project site that needed clean up from uranium-milling. But that was 50 years ago…  Ironies abound.

Aug 8

6:30 a.m.
On the way to the river with the dogs I encounter a doe. What will the “heavy metals” do to her?  The riverbank is covered in deer tracks. The water this morning is darker & clearer – looks like the orange is sinking to the bottom & the river actually looks like it could be water… They said the “plume” is 8 miles long and going 4-5 mph. Thank goodness for rain.
Geese fly south overhead.
I’m leaving town, leaving the state, in a couple of hours. What will the river be like when I return?

Janneli F. Miller is a Free Press contributor. She teaches environmental studies at Fort Lewis College in Durango.


From August 2015. Read similar stories about , , .