The full impact of the Gold King Mine spill on Aug. 5, 2015, may not be known for years on any front, and recovery is far from over. And some of that isn’t environmental, governmental or economic – it’s healing invisible trauma in the people and communities affected.
When 3 million gallons of toxic sludge poured out of the mine into Cement Creek and thence to the Animas River, its bright mustard-yellow color was a visual demonstration of the mine pollution that impacts watersheds across the West. As the yellow line moved downstream from Silverton to Durango through Aztec into the San Juan River and Farmington to the Navajo Nation and finally into Lake Powell, it captured international attention.
Along the route, cities and irrigators closed intakes; well users hauled water in until testing took place; tourism providers, particularly rafting companies, watched business drop; and ordinary citizens conserved water and worried. They worried even more when they learned that a number of mines above Silverton were discharging large amounts of contaminated water into the Animas River watershed and had been for decades.
“If there’s good news to a bad news story, awareness of the river, the river basins and how it all works is through the roof,” said Bob Kunkel, executive director of the Durango Area Tourism Office. “Not only from a local level or a Colorado level, but the whole western U.S. level. That is really going to pay some dividends because none of us understood the spillage was ongoing.”
Real-life lessonsIf there was another silver lining to the spill, it was the material it provided for teachers and professors. Several Durango School District 9-R schools, including Durango and Big Picture high schools and Escalante Middle School, Animas High and Mountain Middle charter schools and Fort Lewis College incorporated the spill in science, math and humanities courses.
“As an educator, the event of it inspired me to localize my curriculum, and it was more meaningful to them,” said Jessica McCallum, junior humanities teacher at Animas High. “The students, on reflection, said, ‘Wow, this is really complex.’ Some students are very deeply affected still.”
McCallum’s students interviewed more than 70 people, including second-graders, decision makers and tourism employees, about the spill for Story Corps and met with high school students in Silverton to understand the spill from a different point of view. The interviews are available online, and they tell the story from many perspectives.
Some common themes were: Distrust of and anger at the Environmental Protection Agency, whose workers caused the spill; fear, whether it’s financial, safety or concern for other community members; and, as Kunkel put it, an awareness of the river and the watershed in a bigger picture way.
‘Technological’ disasterSad. Betrayed. Devastated. Scared. Grief. Blame. Anger. Hostility.
“There’s a uniqueness to what happened in Durango, but there’s also a pattern,” Fort Lewis College sociology associate professor Rebecca Clausen said. “My experience after the Exxon (Valdez) spill (in Alaska) gave me a good context for not seeing this as an isolated event.”
Social science has identified two kinds of disasters: natural – such as hurricanes, earthquakes and tornados, and technological or environmental – and human-made disasters such as Chernobyl, the BP Deepwater Horizon rig oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the Gold King Mine spill, Clausen said. Communities tend to pull together and heal more quickly from the “acts of God,” she said, but technological disasters can rip them apart and have impacts that last generations.
“I spent 10 years living in that community – Cordova, Alaska – realizing firsthand that environmental disasters have real social consequences, including self-harm, addiction and abuse,” she said.
“The community is left waiting for an entity to take responsibility while arguing over who should be blamed. Fears of the ongoing and uncertain consequences of the disaster lead to high levels of stress and anxiety. Primary and secondary effects linger, making it difficult for the community to have closure or recover from the disaster.”
A group of volunteers, including Clausen and hydrologist Jack Turner, without funding from any governmental agency or nonprofit, took on the task of addressing the mental health stresses on the communities impacted by the spill. Calling themselves the Animas Community Listening and Empowerment Project, they held listening sessions in Durango and Farmington.
“People tend not to go seek out a counselor for this kind of grief or anxiety,” Clausen said. “They’re hesitant to talk about it at the supermarket. We gave them an opportunity and permission to talk.”
The project organizers needed the opportunity to talk, too.
“When you value a place, when something happens to it, it doesn’t matter how big or how small, that’s your heart,” said Bayfield resident Lisa Marie Jacobs, who lived in Cordova at the time of the Exxon spill. “We were a tiny town of 2,500, and we saw spikes in domestic violence, in divorce and lots of suicides – our mayor committed suicide, my son’s judo instructor committed suicide.”
Project organizers included Wendolyne Omaña, who helped with outreach to the Latino community. Her translating and connections showed there was a cultural difference in reactions, with Latinos feeling more as Native Americans did.
“My loss was because the Animas River is where I go when I need to heal my heart,” said Ptisawquah, a Native American member of the committee. “The spill took away my ability to take care of myself, heal myself. It added more stressors, instead, what was peaceful was taken away, and it was handled very poorly.”
While Ptisawquah is a member of the Assinboine, Kickapoo and Potawatomi tribes, her indigenous heritage provided an opening for the group to reach out to the Navajo community.
“Silverton had an attitude of ‘this is just normal.’ Durango is totally in a denial place that allowed us to move on fast,” said Ashley Merchant, community outreach director for United Way of Southwest Colorado, who did her master’s thesis on the invisible trauma of the spill, including analyzing the results of the listening groups. “Aztec and Farmington wanted to get past it. But at the farthest end of the watershed, in the Navajo Nation, it’s still fresh. What we saw there was compounded by their historical trauma and distrust of the federal government. Water has a huge spiritual component for them because water is life.”
Adding to the trauma for the Navajo, an EPA contractor delivered water for livestock and crops in tankers to Shiprock, New Mexico, nine days after the spill, that was contaminated by petroleum products previously transported in the tankers.
One of the questions asked at the listening sessions was, “What do you need to recover?”
“A lot of people who identified as white didn’t answer that question because they were kind of done,” Merchant said. “But for the Navajo Nation, nine months later, it was still having that impact. Durango may have had the luxury to let it drift away, but that’s not true for the Navajo Nation downriver.”
The results from the listening sessions should be viewed as a small sample and not a representative sample of the population, Clausen said.
“It’s just a rough sketch of what some people were thinking at the time,” she said. “I still think this is valuable and important information to have, but the academic researcher in me knows that it is a far cry from an academic study.”
The group is taking a summer vacation, but in the fall, it will begin consideration of an emergency mental health plan for the community. While it held its first listening session just two months after the spill, members think it would be better to be able to respond more quickly.
“This was not an anomaly; there will be other impacts, maybe not a spill, but wildfires, droughts,” Turner said. “We have emergency response plans for the fire departments, the police, the county. What process do we have in place so we’re not just scrambling, so we don’t all just start retreating to our strongholds, so we can help people deal with the emotional impact?”
Lessons learned from the Gold King Mine spill will be incorporated in the plan, the group said.
“We still see work we can do,” Turner said. “How do we connect with the elderly? There is not just one audience in the community. How can the indigenous perspective be carried into that plan, how can we be inclusive of everyone?”
River businesses“From a tourism standpoint, it’s over,” Kunkel said. “For tourists, it ended like somebody pulled the shade down as soon as the river reopened. They essentially said, ‘All I want to do is get my family on the river, I don’t care about your local hooha.’”
The most affected, Kunkel said, were the river rafting companies.
“We’ll have a better answer in a year or so about how much it impacted us,” said Alex Mickel, owner of Mild to Wild Rafting and Jeep. “I expect it to have an impact for three to five years before it’s totally gone from people’s consciousness, but not catastrophic, not enough to put us out of business, and probably quite small in the third year.”
Two factors helped his rafting business get through, Mickel said, adding that his business is up slightly in June and up in July this year over 2015.
“We were having a really good season before the spill,” he said. “And I’m glad we have a clean and safe river to recreate in this summer, not just for the business but because our kids play in the river, and it’s just part of our lives.”
The big question is what would this summer’s business have been without the spill?
“We’ve had people call and not go because of it or cancel because of it,” Mickel said about this year’s bookings, with tourists concerned about the safety of the river. “But the hardest number to pin down is the people who are not calling. Our business really ties into how the state’s tourism goes, and Colorado is having a banner year. How much of that growth have we missed because of this?”
One indicator is how many people stayed in Durango’s hotels and motels during August 2015. Lodgers tax declined by about 5 percent, but the drop may not be attributable to the spill, Tim Walsworth of the Durango Business Improvement District said when the numbers came out in October 2015. Some of that was because the Labor Day weekend, one of the biggest of the year for visitors, fell totally in September.
Lodgers tax numbers for this summer will not be available until fall, but it has been a good season, Kunkel said.
In the Animas High School students’ interviews for Story Corps, several people mentioned statements they heard from tourists.
“Questions kept popping up,” said Kyle Colley, who works for the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. “One tourist said, ‘We heard somewhere they had evacuated the entire town of Durango, and it would be decades before they could live here again.’”
Ongoing monitoringMany organizations continue to monitor the river for water quality and health of fish and insects that call it home.
Nonprofit Mountain Studies Institute is collaborating with the city of Durango on Animas River monitoring. One big concern was whether spring runoff would re-suspend the sediment lining the riverbed.
“Our monitoring program aims to understand whether water quality this spring is any different than previous years,” said Marcie Bidwell, institute director, “and if metal concentrations in the river pose any threat to human health, agriculture or aquatic life. Results from the spring samples are encouraging.”
At least twice during the spring runoff, concentrations of manganese and lead, some of the metals contained in the spill sediment still lining the riverbed, surpassed the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment water-quality standards of the Animas River as a source for domestic drinking water. All other results for all other purposes fell below screening levels.
The science is one part of the puzzle, Turner said. Another, individual use of the river, is something unmeasureable, but he believes it is down significantly.
“To see the river like that was piercing, and it made me feel insignificant, really small and helpless, in shock,” he said. “I’m waiting to see the river go down to see if the yellow ‘bathtub’ stain is still there. I don’t know if I’ve put my feet in the river yet, and I keep asking what’s happening to this community if we’re not going to the river?”