Back in August (I know, I’m late to post this, apologies), on a soggy weekend, the Mountain Studies Institute held its San Juan Mining and Reclamation Conference in Durango, with a field trip to Silverton. It just happened to coincide with the one year anniversary of the Gold King blowout, the mine mishap that has launched a thousand congressional hearings and lawsuits.
The conference panels weren’t exactly light fare, and ran the gamut from updates on the current state of area watersheds to technical discussions of particular mine reclamation projects. But even to the layman it was clear that there are a lot of people working on the complex problem of cleaning up mines like the Gold King and hundreds of others throughout the West.
Meanwhile, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez had come up to Farmington, about an hour’s drive south of Durango, to mark the spill’s anniversary, i.e. to bash the Environmental Protection Agency, which was working on the mine when it blew out, sending about 3 million gallons of Tang-colored, acidic and metal-laden water into the Animas. Martinez called the spill “absolute devastation.” Ryan Flynn, her environment department head (who since quit to head up the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, another crazy story for another time), said: “The EPA says everything has returned to normal, but the data tells us otherwise.”
Everyone downstream of the Gold King Mine has good reason to be upset about the spill. It was, quite frankly, a scary sight to see, and especially emotionally scarring for the Navajos who not only rely on the river for irrigation, but also hold water in general, and the San Juan River in particular, as sacred. In the Dine language, the San Juan is known as Bits’íís Doo ninít’i’í, or Sacred River of the North. Farmers all along the river had to shut down their ditches during a hot and dry time. Rafting companies couldn’t raft, or even rent out tubes. There was a significant economic impact, crops withered, and people were psychologically wounded.
But “absolute devastation” is a bit strong. Even as Martinez was grandstanding in Farmington, Curtis Hartenstein, of the Southern Ute environmental division, and Scott Roberts, of the Mountain Studies Institute, were informing the conference-goers that the spill had no discernible impact on aquatic life along the length of the river, not even near Silverton, where the plume was at its strongest concentration in the Animas. The diversity and number of bugs and fish that were in the river prior to the spill were virtually unchanged several months after the spill — in some cases they increased. The science provides quite the contrast to the sensationalistic reports, such as the one from that venerable institution The Atlantic, that described the spill as “ruining water supplies for towns and killing fish and wildlife.”
As for whether the river is back to “normal” depends in part on what you mean by normal. Generally speaking, the water quality is back to what it was before the spill. The thing is, it wasn’t all that great back then, thanks not only to the legacy of mining in the upper reaches of the Animas, but also to other sources of pollution along its length, which are myriad.
That it’s Martinez and Flynn expressing so much concern for the environment is especially ironic. The environment department has been notoriously lax in enforcing regulations. And a few years ago, Martinez’s environment department — Flynn was general counsel at the time — loosened a longstanding state mining rule so that it would allow copper mining corporations to pollute the groundwater surrounding their mines. Now, Flynn’s going on to head the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, which advocates for another industry that has contributed to pollution issues in the Farmington area in particular.
Back at the conference, the hard work of actually addressing the problems continued. From it all, one thing became very clear: Mining is hard. Putting things back together again after mining leaves is a heck of a lot harder.