On the morning of August 7, Durangoans awoke to a tragic sight: Overnight the Animas River had transformed from mid-summer clear-green into a brilliant golden ribbon threaded through downtown. People lined the River Trail to take in the sight. Pictures and laments were posted all over social media. The whole world took notice, as the news and images circled the globe.
Everyone knew it was coming. Two days earlier, on August 5, contractors working for the Environmental Protection Agency at the site of an abandoned mine deep in the San Juan Mountains triggered a release of 3 million gallons of toxic water and sludge into Cement Creek, upstream of Silverton and a headwater tributary of the Animas River.
What everyone didn’t know – and, in large part, still don’t know – are the effects the toxic plume has had on the Animas and San Juan rivers, and on the communities that live along those waterways, from Silverton to Farmington, New Mexico, to the Navajo Nation, downstream of where the Animas meets the San Juan.
Fort Lewis College played an important role when the world’s eye turned on the spill and on the threats that remain from the West’s mining legacy, contributing scientific skills, professional expertise, and insights on impacts. Faculty and students alike continue that work in FLC’s laboratories and classrooms, research and reflecting upon this incident and its implications.
By mid-August, the Animas River corridor through Durango, which had been closed by city authorities until tests showed the water safe, was reopened. On August 18, the Durango river community responded in typical Durango fashion: with a river parade. And with a deepened appreciation for the fragile artery that runs through the heart of Durango.