Local rafting companies are already taking eager river runners out on the water. Since the Gold King Mine spill last August, lots of local, state and federal entities have been keeping an eye on the river’s health./Photo by Jennaye Derge

Ready to run

As summer hits, experts say the Animas River is safe

by Tracy Chamberlin


At this point, most people are either already in the river or standing on the banks eyeing the brown, muddy waters – wondering, “Is it safe?” According to local experts, who’ve been observing the Animas for decades, the answer is yes.

At least, just as safe as it’s always been.

Jump on in

It’s time for locals to dip their toes back in the water. The biggest reminder of that is Animas River Days, which starts at 8:30 a.m. Sat., June 4, at Santa Rita Park. Since local paddling legend Nancy Wiley held the first whitewater rodeo in 1982, the annual festival has been a celebration of the waters that bring life to the Southwest. Featured events include whitewater slalom, kayak and inflatable rodeos, boatercross, river parade and more.

Hope Tyler, media coordinator for Animas River Days, said anyone with questions or concerns about the health of the Animas can talk to any one of the local organizations on hand Saturday, including the San Juan Clean Water Coalition, Trout Unlimited, San Juan Basin Health Department and more.

For more info., go to www.animas riverdays.com

For almost a century, waste has been seeping out from abandoned mines to the north. Only not everyone took notice. Not until the Environmental Protection Agency accidentally sent more than 3 million gallons of toxic, Tang-colored mine waste into Durango’s lifeblood last August. That’s when everyone took notice.

“I’m so grateful our river didn’t die in the spill,” said Ty Churchwell, San Juan Mountains Coordinator for Trout Unlimited, a national organization whose mission is to conserve and protect North America’s cold-water fisheries.

“It brought much-needed attention to abandoned mines all over the western United States,” he added. “People are seeing these mines with a new eye.”

According to Churchwell and other local experts, the fishery is healthy, the water quality good and the runoff virtually no different than it has been in years past. In fact, this is likely the best time to jump right in.

When it comes to how toxic metals and other elements can affect people, livestock and aquatic life, the three key components are pH levels, concentration and duration of exposure.

The Animas River is close to neutral, Churchwell said, which is a good thing. Second, the concentration of metals depends greatly on how much volume is in the river. So when the river is running at about 3,000 cfs, like it was Wednesday morning, it means plenty of volume to disperse metals.

Lastly, the quick flows from spring runoff mean the duration of exposure, or time people spend in those waters, is short.

“The Animas is in a good place,” he added.

It’s been almost 10 months since the Gold King Mine spill flooded the globe with images of a mustard yellow Animas.

Since that fateful August day, monitoring of the river has increased, an emergency system has been created to alert the community to any dangers, and Silverton officials have been working with the EPA to create a Superfund site encompassing 48 draining mines near Silverton.

“I bet a lot of people are unaware of the amount of work that has gone into monitoring the river since last fall,” Scott Roberts, aquatic ecologist for Mountain Studies Institute, a Silverton-based, environmental nonprofit, said.

Several organizations, including state, local and federal agencies, are continually monitoring the river for metals and other possible contaminants. Mountain Studies Institute alone is conducting weekly tests at Rotary Park through the end of July.

“There’s a lot of eyes on the river,” he added.

The Environmental Protection Agency accidentally released more than 3 million gallons of mine waste into Cement Creek, above, outside Silverton last August. The spill from the Gold King Mine put a spotlight on abandoned mines./File photo

In the most recent data collected, the institute found the levels for metals were safe for agriculture and domestic use. Only two were a little high for aquatic life: iron and aluminum.

That doesn’t mean it’s because of the spill, though. Roberts explained both those metals occur naturally in the soil.

The levels aren’t unprecedented either. The data shows those same levels were detected about a decade ago, long before the Gold King Mine spill. Roberts explained even if all the mines in the Silverton area were cleaned up, those levels would likely still be high.

He said the fish in the Animas, however, have been telling a troubling story for years. Trout populations have struggled to reproduce naturally and much of the fish being caught are stocked. The cause is a combination of factors, including drought, development and construction, metals from draining mines, to name a few.

It’s one of the reasons Mountain
Studies, along with Trout Unlimited, have been monitoring aquatic life in the river. Aquatic life, particularly  
macroinvertebrates, is the key to understanding the health of the river. After all, they spend all their time in the water.

“We didn’t detect any evidence that aquatic communities were affected by the Gold King Mine event,” Roberts said.

About six months before the mine spill, a coalition of local businesses, nonprofit organizations and citizens came together to form the San Juan Clean Water Coalition.

The group originally formed to support what’s called Good Samaritan legislation. For years, Colorado’s elected officials have introduced bills in Congress intended to fill a gap in federal law.

Get in the flow

- To find out more or comment on the Superfund draft plan, visit www.epa.gov/goldkingmine and click on the Bonita Peak Mining District in the top right-hand corner.

- To sign up for La Plata County’s emergency alert system and get the latest river updates, visit www.co.laplata. co.us/emergency.

- To learn more about the San Juan Clean Water Coalition’s efforts or join the conversation, visit www.wearetheanimas.com.

Under the Clean Water Act and other federal legislation, anyone who attempts to clean up an abandoned mine becomes legally responsible for that site in perpetuity. It meant anyone wanting to be a good Samaritan and help tackle the mine waste seeping into the local watershed would be libel for that site and any of its contaminants for all time.

Over the past several years, state representatives and senators from both sides of the aisle have introduced legislation, commonly referred to as Good Samaritan bills, hoping to address the legal loopholes.

Their most recent effort is a draft bill called the Good Samaritan Cleanup of Orphan Mines Act. It hasn’t been formerly introduced but is instead making its way through the hands of several stakeholders.

The San Juan Clean Water Coalition has since adjusted its focus to the Superfund listing. Churchwell and Roberts believe the Superfund listing is the way to go. And they’re in good company. Officials from Silverton, San Juan County, La Plata County and the Durango City Council have all voiced support for the Superfund.

“There’s no question we have a problem at the top of the watershed,” Churchwell said.

A Superfund designation essentially places a specific area, in this case the Bonita Peak Mining District, on the National Priorities List. It’s a way for local communities to access federal resources and funding to address environmental issues, like the mines north of Durango draining waste into local watersheds.

The Bonita Peak site encompasses 48 specific mines, all of which were originally identified by the Animas River Stakeholders Group. This local organization has been on the forefront of the issue since its inception in 1994, trying to address the myriad of abandoned mines littering the local mountains.

Churchwell, who’s been with the ARSG for a decade, said the 48 sites included in the Superfund designation are the biggest contributors to mine waste pollution in the area. If those were fixed, he added, it would have a major impact on the overall health of the entire watershed.

Although there are details to be worked out, it’s likely Bonita Peak will eventually get its Superfund designation, Churchwell said. In fact, the EPA is already on site and laying the groundwork for the project.

The federal agency plans to host an informational meeting on the proposed Superfund listing from 6:30-8:30 p.m. Thurs., June 9, at San Juan College in Farmington. The deadline to comment on the draft plan has been extended until June 13.