Tales from the shaft

“So tell me Dad,” my daughter Skyler often asks. “Whatcha writing about this week?”

My 7-year-old perks up when she hears glamorous answers like Californication, salvation by singletrack or Barbie’s trip to the Bondad landfill. Air quality permits, river health and downtown business stories draw more subdued reactions.

A few days ago, I offered Skyler one from the greatest hits album. “This week,” I said before pausing to heighten the suspense, “Dad is writing a doozy about mining.”

“Cool,” she answered. “You mean like gold, silver, jewels and gems? Does the story talk about dark tunnels, hidden passages, underground trains and that stuff?”

“Kinda,” I replied. “But it’s actually more about dust, heavy metals and gamma radiation – the type of mining they do around Durango.”

I then framed the story in terms any 7- or 70-year-old could relate to.

“Imagine if Snow White never showed, and the Seven Dwarfs never experienced her positive, feminine charms,” I said in my best narrator’s voice. “Grumpy, Doc, Dopey and the boys spent all of their daylight hours underground with hammer drills, sticks of dynamite and high-pressure hoses before piling giant mounds of slag outside the mine shaft. After the whistle sounds, they pass up the razor, skip the soap and head straight to the tavern, buying rounds with their pockets of loot. Canadian whiskey just happens to be a dwarf favorite.

“Now here’s where it gets interesting,” I told her after looking over each shoulder. “This mine is not like the one in the cartoon – gems and gold don’t just fall out of this hole in the ground. So Sneezy and Happy set up a processing mill to extract the riches from their slag heap. They blade in a road over a popular trail to connect the mine and mill; move Thumper, Bambi and their families to make it happen; cook up a chemical stew to separate the shiny from dirty; and ‘accidentally’ flush the waste back into the river.

“Bashful and Sleepy are active on the public relations front and have the queen convinced that they’re running a ‘green mining’ operation (this part makes for lots of good yucks at the tavern). They claim they’re adhering to every rule and regulation, and the Mined Land Reclamation honchos have a strange thing for little men with snowy white beards,” I continued. “And then one day, completely out of the blue, Dirty Dwarfs Inc. goes bankrupt, the magnificent seven pack up the F-350 Club Cab, move on to the virgin mountains around Pocahontas’ camp and start a new corporation. The only signs they ever visited are Snow White’s new autoimmune dysfunction, a boarded up tavern, a giant pile of gray tailings and thousands of poisoned apples.”

Skyler looked at me with disbelief. “Oh Dad,” she said, shaking her head. “That is definitely not the way the story goes ... You must be one of the weirdest fathers in Durango.”

Maybe it was something about growing up under a massive tailings pile or seeing the neighborhood’s mining families suffer through the last major bust. Maybe it was the years I sat by and patiently watched my Royal Wulff and flyline as they drifted through various dead rivers and streams. Or maybe it was seeing my fit, nearly vegetarian ski patroller Dad diagnosed with cancer at age 55, just on the other side of the San Juans. But Skyler was right. There was a weird flip side to my postcard upbringing, and it seeped into our river, blew into the air every spring and tainted our drinking water.

Nonetheless, I cannot tell a lie – I am a big fan of metals. Titanium occupies a particularly soft spot in my heart, and I use copper, aluminum, tin and good old U.S. Steel on a daily basis. Hell, I’m even open to the idea that locally mined uranium can help generate relatively green energy all over the American grid. And I’m more than happy to open my back yard to the right kind of miner.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that you can’t always trust those Seven Dwarfs. At the outset of our most recent metals boom – way back in the early to mid-2000s – I was optimistic when several “stand-up companies” expressed their interest in bringing “environmentally responsible” extraction to the region. Unfortunately, the boys promptly fell right back into their old habits.

Roads have been illegally bladed into several corners of the San Juans, trucks carrying Western Slope uranium ore have turned over within spitting distance of the town of Salida and the leach of ages continues to flow into the Animas and La Plata River watersheds.

Durango’s very own local mining company, Wildcat, has been a particularly suspect steward of the San Juans. The San Diego corporation has knowingly violated a cease-and-desist order, been using an illegal road to mine gold in La Plata Canyon and blasted its way up Ohwiler Ridge to make it happen. Despite the stop-work orders and a series of slap-on-the-wrist fines, the company blames all of its missteps on “confusion” and is asking for community forgiveness as well as the blessing of Colorado authorities.

“Oh and by the way,” those wily Wildcats wink. “We’re interested in doing a little bit of ‘responsible’ cyanide leach mining further up La Plata Canyon. That’d be OK, wouldn’t it?”

Sorry, but it’s well past time to send Dopey, Grumpy and Shabby on their way. And if the boys in Denver aren’t going to hold their dirty boots to the smelting fire, the people of La Plata County will have to step up. The truth is, I’m a little tired of writing about the rich local legacy of hardrock mining. And I’m also tired of waiting for Snow White to ride to Southwest Colorado’s rescue.

– Will Sands



In this week's issue...

January 25, 2024
Bagging it

State plastic bag ban is in full effect, but enforcement varies

January 26, 2024
Paper chase

The Sneer is back – and no we’re not talking about Billy Idol’s comeback tour.

January 11, 2024
High and dry

New state climate report projects continued warming, declining streamflows