City Travel

What Really Happened At The Gold King Mine Disaster?

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Photo: Newsweek

Southwest Colorado is a blip on the radar for most people.

That is, until August 7th, when grave tragedy struck. You might have seen pictures on the internet of the toxic, mustard yellow water flowing through the Animas River from Silverton, Colorado down to Lake Powell in Utah.

The Animas River is the lifeblood for thousands of people who live in the valleys of Southwest Colorado and the desert beyond. Not only does the Animas provide safe drinking water for the Navajo Nation, it also single-handedly drives an adventure tourism industry that keeps towns like Durango afloat.

For locals, the presence of dysfunctional and abandoned mines are simply a part of life. In fact, some such “ghost towns” serve as tourist attractions themselves. Spend the afternoon in the La Platas or San Juan Mountains to find eery industrial leftovers from centuries past that seem to haunt the hillside.

So if these abandoned mines (22,000 in the state of Colorado) are the status quo, what went wrong at the Gold King Mine?

It all started in June of 2014 when the Environmental Protection Agency, or the EPA, was served with a work order that said (of the Gold King Mine), “Conditions may exist that could result in a blowout of the blockages and cause a release of large volumes of contaminated mine waters and sediment from inside the mine, which contain concentrated heavy metals.” This statement was echoed in an action plan dated in May of 2015.

The EPA finally took notice and in July or early August of 2015, they began work in the area. Concrete plugs were put in place to help stem leaks and plans were made to build a pipeline to divert, then treat, contaminated water.

But on August 7th, the crew accidentally breached the concrete wall and opened up the path for contaminated water to spew at a rate of 610 gallons per minute from the mine. Immediately Cement Creek, which feeds into the Animas, turned the famous shade of yellow-orange and flowed downstream.

The EPA waited more than 24 hours to report the spill to local authorities.

The government’s silence mixed with the knowledge that the problems were discovered at Gold King Mine more than a year ago was enough to outrage locals, as well as national and international media.

Businesses were shut down. The Navajo Nation voted to find drinking water elsewhere.

No one is able to estimate the longterm environmental impact.

Mandy Burkholder is a travel, adventure, and outdoor writer who honed her craft in the foothills of the La Plata Mountains of Southwest Colorado. After a stint in the Swiss Alps, she now resides in Tennessee. Follow her on twitter — @mandyburkhold3r