Notes from an environmental disaster: The Animas River contamination

Animas flowing Animas, 7 a.m. Friday, 33rd St.By Janneli F. Miller

Thursday afternoon, Aug. 6

4 p.m.

I’m just above the 33rd St put-in in Animas City. The Gold King Mine clean-up near Silverton has gone awry & at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, a toxic sludge of mining wastes was released into Cement Creek. It passed through Silverton & hit the Animas & the river is bright orange. A helicopter is flying about overhead – moves upriver, turns around, hovers – whack whack whack. More traffic than normal passes by on the dead-end residential lane: bicycles, motorbikes, trucks, police cars patrolling. The sheriff ordered everyone off the river about 30 minutes ago, and is now making sure we don’t gather on this private road so the residents don’t complain. There are various reports as to where the “plume” is and how fast it is moving. It was at the Iron Horse about an hour ago…


6 p.m.

Residents are mulling about the empty put-in. A patrol car blocks the road and the uniformed men amble through the crowd providing as much information as they can. Photos from the helicopter show up on the Albuquerque news. People in Durango weren’t advised until 24 hours after the spill. Anxious residents line the river, stand on bridges – Where is it? Not here yet.

I get a text from a colleague – we’re professors of Environmental Studies at Ft. Lewis. “Are you at the river?” she asks. “Yes – not here yet…” “We’re downstream taking samples – let us know when you see anything.”

A pair of women wander by, one on her phone: “we’re giving up; we have waited a long time & are on our way home- Not here yet & no one knows when it will get here- It’s going real slow through the oxbows.”


7:30 p.m.

We think we’ve seen the river orange but can’t tell – was it the sunset? The orange smoke clouding the sky from the Sleeping Ute fire distorts our view, plus it’s sunset… Riverside at the banks a small crowd peers into the dusky river. One of my FLC environmental studies students is there. “I had to come see it.” The water is looking cloudy. Ooooh it IS changing, isn’t it?

Thursday, Aug. 6


8:30 p.m.

32nd St bridge, N. Durango

A huddle of citizens gaze into the darkness. “You can see it better there by the light,” someone says. Down below, the water has a yellow glow – is it the light? No, it’s the plume. “It’s here – oh, no!” exclaims someone. Another man is calculating the CFS (river flow) & wondering how long it will take to go through town.


Friday, Aug. 7

5:30 a.m.

We wake to the sounds of our neighbor arranging his hoses as he begins to water his lawn. The City has asked all citizens to conserve water and to refrain from watering outdoors. This guy is watering before daylight and by 6:30 his hoses are hidden.


6 a.m.

The sky flushes a deep red with sunrise. Rain in the forecast. I hurry out the door, hop on my bike and in minutes I see it: the orange river. At the 32nd St bridge, there are more folks than usual for this hour. Everyone has cameras. Some folks chat quietly sharing the latest news. It’s acidic. It’s got minerals. Durango drinking water is OK. Somebody knows somebody who worked at the mine – it wasn’t supposed to happen…


6:30 a.m., 33rd St put-in

It’s still hard to integrate. The river shouldn’t be orange. A heron lifts off the water, legs colored orange. Kingfishers fly low, up and down, up and down, squawking, squawking. I see a beaver nosing through the thick orange river & my heart breaks – tears…

A young woman is snapping photos of the orange slime on the riverbank. We are all instant friends somehow – she grew up here & has never seen anything like it even though her father tells her it’s happened before – “but in the ’70s it was a grey spill” she says, “I don’t even remember it – not like this.” It’s so sad, I say, telling her about the beaver. She’s noticed the kingfishers too and says, “Yeah, that got me just now – we can stay out – but what about them? their bellies are all orange…”

In the ’20s there was a spill of 127 million gallons, but this spill – 100 million gallons, “approximately” – is the second largest in history.

And why did it take 24 hours for us to hear the news? we wonder. 10:30 a.m. Wednesday was the spill. At noon Thursday it hit Durango’s media. “I work on computers all day & we heard nothing for 24 hours – I can’t believe nobody in Silverton tweeted about it – Why the delay???” a friend asks.


7 a.m.

At 29th St. on the river trail I watch some mergansers. The little family huddles on rocks. One bird jumps in, gets right back out. They stand on the rocks, shaking and fluffing their feathers and plucking and plucking and shaking.

A friend from Bayfield texts: “The river will never be the same again. Where can we move to? I don’t want to see it.”

“There goes that watershed,” someone comments.


10 a.m.

KSUT is announcing the latest news. We will be notified when the river is safe. The EPA tests, which will tell us what’s in the water, are expected this afternoon. Farmington is getting ready. The Bureau of Rec is releasing water from Navajo Dam to dilute the “plume.”

Animas River is “closed” to state line (How do you “close” the river to a beaver?) This crud will flow into the San Juan & then the Colorado…



Helicopters hovering over north Durango. Skies are grey. River is looking brighter – more yellow, less orange – thinning out.

Enough for now.

Janneli F. Miller teaches environmental studies at Fort Lewis College in Durango.

From August 2015. Read similar stories about , , .