When our river turned gold.
FLC helps Durango deal with Animas River mine waste spill


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.

  • August 7

    A 3-million-gallon plume of wastewater from the Gold King Mine reaches downtown Durango, turning the Animas River gold and catching the eyes of the world.

  • August 11

    Geosciences Professor Kim Hannula is interviewed by Al Jazeera America.

  • August 12

    Associate Professor of Biology Cynthia Dott leads students into the Animas River watershed to survey the spill’s effects on riverine flora and fauna.

  • August 15

    Sociology Associate Professor Rebecca Clausen creates an event to help the Durango community process feelings in the wake of the spill.

  • August 18

    After being closed by city officials, the Animas River is reopened to recreation. Durangoans responded in typical Durango fashion: with a river parade.

Feature Stories