What’s become as much of a fixture at Animas River Stakeholders Group meetings as discussions of mine cleanup and deteriorating water quality, is filmmaker Tom Schillaci capturing it all on camera the past 15 years.
Schillaci, who lives in Silverton, was working on a documentary about mine remediation in the Animas River Basin, called “Acid Mine Nation,” when the Gold King Mine blew out on Aug. 5.
The filmmaker, who typically remains silent behind the lens at stakeholders group meetings, saw relatively technical and dry meetings turn into a media frenzy and public spectacle in the days after the EPA triggered the release of 3 million gallons of mine wastewater.
“I was heart-broken at the Gold King spill because I could see all the positive work done over the years erased because public perception is public reality,” he said. “They saw a yellow river, and it freaked them out.”
Schillaci’s involvement with mine cleanup in the Animas watershed began in 2001, after he was laid off from Janus Mutual Funds in Denver. He saw an article in The Denver Post about former Fort Lewis College professor Rob Blair, who wanted to start The Center for Mountain Studies. Schillaci contacted Blair, offering his digital photography and videography skills.
The geoscience professor pointed Schillaci to the Mountain Film Festival in Telluride, where he was “blown away” not just by the environmental films but also being in the same room with explorers, anthropologists, educators and geologists.
“I returned to Denver on Monday, bought a video camera on Wednesday, and was in Silverton on Friday shooting my first video covering the ARSG cleanup event,” Schillaci said.
With almost 15 years of footage, Schillaci said viewers of “Acid Mine Nation” will see the increasing pressure by the Environmental Protection Agency on San Juan County and the town of Silverton to pursue a Superfund status.
“Gold King really changed the playing field,” he said. “The county commissioners were already on a trajectory to learn more about Superfund, but this event that prompted an emergency response really put the icing on the cake.”
Schillaci will spend the next three months editing, and hopes to premiere the film in the summer. He’s released shorter documentaries over the years, but “Acid Mine Nation” will be his first 30- to 45-minute full-length movie.
But first, he’s asking for members of the community to voice their opinion on the spill and the after-effects on camera.
“I want to know, what do they think?” he said.
More than anything, Schillaci said he’d like to see his film be of use to other communities dealing with a legacy of hard-rock mining industries, and the cleanup that comes with it.
“It has always been a shared goal to improve water quality downstream from Silverton, but there’s been no agreement how to get there,” he said. “So, we’ll see. The story is far from over.