Reporting Trip Report
A stop at Silverton to talk Gold King Mine
Editor’s Note: Since we’re on the road reporting for the next month or so, Land Desk dispatches will be sent out at slightly irregular intervals. So if you don’t receive one when you expect, don’t panic! We’ll return to our normal schedule, and be bringing you in-depth reports from the trip, in mid-July.
The rains came. I was doing a little float trip/rock-dodging trip down the too-low-for-this-time-of-year Animas River in Durango with friends when the clouds piled up in the sky and the breeze turned cool and the first drops began to fall, triggering the petrichor, then stopped, cruelly. Was it a tease? Were the weather forecasters wrong, once again?
Nope. Within a few hours the torrent had begun in earnest, filling up the gutters and making mud puddles and continuing all night long. I awoke the next morning to rain drops falling outside my window and drove to Silverton in a downpour. I was going to the high mountain town to spend the day talking Gold King Mine, San Juan Mountain history, and mining impacts with participants in Wright-Ingraham Institute’s rural futures field station. They were being hosted in the area by Mountain Studies Institute.
The original plan was to spend the day outdoors, hiking to the Gold King Mine, doing some water sampling, and talking hydrology and history. The rain put a damper on that plan, though. So we spent our time in the basement of the Miner’s Union Hospital, where I once whiled away the nights working on the Silverton Mountain Journal and the Silverton Standard. We made a quick run between storms to Gladstone, once the Gold King Mine’s company town and now the site of the EPA’s water treatment plant. Then had a tour of the Mayflower Mill from none other than Freddie Canfield, a famous Silverton character.
I was supposed to be there to impart my knowledge to the field station’s participants, but I’m sure I learned more from the other guests: Jake Kurzweil and Anthony Culpepper of MSI and Terry Morris, a longtime mining engineer from Silverton. Kurzweil, a hydrologist, is currently conducting studies aimed at better understanding what’s happening within Bonita Peak, home to the Gold King and Sunnyside Mines. Morris worked at the Sunnyside Mine from 1974 to 1981 and again from 1989 to 1991 (when it closed). He was there when Lake Emma collapsed into the mine and drained through it and recounted exactly how it all happened. It was enlightening, even to me, and I’ve read just about every account I could dig up.
I won’t retell the whole story here, but I can say this: The accident occurred not out of negligence, recklessness, (or, as some conspiracy theorists would have it, so the mining company could collect insurance), but because geology had played a little trick on the mining engineers, fooling them into thinking the bottom of the lake was far higher than it actually was.
Overall the experience reminded me how complicated and nuanced the issues around mining and its environmental impacts are. This ain’t no black and white issue.
On the drive home, car tire rainwater rooster tails; low clouds obscuring Twilight Peak; and just green, unbelievable green where just two days earlier the earth had been parched, the dust rising with every step, the vegetation all stressed. Suddenly everything was verdant and lush. When it was all said and done, the storm had dropped 1.16 inches of precipitation at the Durango airport, and surely a bit more than that further north. That’s nearly half of the total precipitation that gauge has received all year. Forecasts say more rain is on the way.
The drought, of course, is not over. One of the striking things about my drive home from Silverton was the number of aspen stands that appeared to be sick or dying, their leaves brown and withered, almost as if they’d burned. It will take a lot more than a good monsoon to heal that damage.