One Last Glimpse: A Kayaker Reflects on a River Turned Orange

The Animas River mine waste spill prompts Eliot Treichel to reflect on paddling, relationships and the value of wild rivers

By Eliot Treichel

The summer after I graduated college, my creative writing and outdoor education degree in hand, I moved to Durango, Colorado, to ostensibly edit a whitewater kayaking manual. The author, a world champion paddler, also helped me get a job selling gear at a local paddling shop. My first week in town, I slept fitfully in the back of my pickup truck, which I parked behind the store, right along the river. I was both thrilled and terrified. Thrilled because I was in Durango, a place that held a kind of whitewater lore for a Midwestern kid like me, a flatlander. Terrified because I was alone in a new town, and I was being knocked about by a clingy yet cold long-distance relationship (for the record, I was the clingy one). And, despite my dual major in creative writing and outdoor adventure, my command of both the comma and the combat roll remained weak.

The Animas was running high with snowmelt that first week I was there. After work, I'd head upstream on the bike path and go watch the locals shred a particular set of waves, bigger and more crashing than anything I'd ever surfed. The waves formed just below a footbridge, which made for easy viewing, and it was common for runners and bicyclists and strolling families to stop and watch the show. If it looked like someone wasn't going to make their roll, but then at the last second did, those watching would break into applause.

I decided I'd go early one morning, alone. The eddies were always crowded after work, and if you missed or got blown off, it was a long wait for your next shot. I went when I knew the river would be empty, the bridge free of spectators.

Generally speaking, paddling alone isn't a good idea. Back then that seemed something fun to play with. Hubris. The Animas that morning was a crystalline green.

Earlier this month, after the Environmental Protection Agency inadvertently released over 3 million gallons of toxic mining wastewater into the river, the Animas has become known for a new color—a milky and nearly fluorescent yellow-orange, the color it turned after the spill. The EPA was at the abandoned Gold King mine, some fifty miles north of Durango, as part of an ongoing attempt to deal with the mine's wastewater and hopefully reduce the amount of metal pollution seeping into nearby Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas. While trying to install a drainpipe, EPA heavy machinery dislodged an earthen plug that had been holding the water back. When the initial spill was triggered, the wastewater flooded out with enough force to take out trees and culverts and even one Suburban. Luckily, no workers were injured. The EPA found the release "unexpected."

Whoops.

The fact the spill happened as part of a cleanup effort certainly makes this particular accident more ironic, and it's tempting to use that irony as a way to deflect the sadness of it, just as it was tempting to look at the shocking orange of the water and be subdued by its alien beauty.

Seven days after the accident, the EPA has confirmed the plume contains cadmium, arsenic, copper, zinc and lead, though they have also been reluctant in sharing their full test results. EPA chief Gina McCarthy has publicly stated, however, that the water has already returned to "pre-event conditions," but what does "pre-event conditions" mean when it comes to something like this? In some areas the orange is largely gone, and the river was only recently reopened to recreation. Rafting outfitters sat idle for over a week, refunding reservation deposits from hundreds of customers. Farmers are still not drawing irrigation water. Wells go unused. At the mine, discharge continues to pour into Cement Creek at a rate of several hundred gallons per minute. A thick mustard-orange sludge coats the hillsides, vulnerable to summer rains that will likely wash it into the creek.

Pollution from abandoned hard rock mines is an issue with which most Coloradans, and others in the Western U.S., have long been familiar. According to Colorado officials, there are several hundred known sites leaking acidic discharge into the state's watersheds. Across the West, there are some 160,000 abandoned hard rock mines, 33,000 of which have been identified as degrading the environment. That's 33,000 slow-drips of pollution, which are easier to ignore than is one wrongly colored river.

There's a picture everyone's seen by now, a trio of paddlers in their kayaks, floating atop what looks like an eddy of Day-Glo orange paint. When I look at that picture, I am transported back to that morning of my very first attempt on the wave—the warmth of the sun and the thump of my heart, the rush and thunder of the snow-cold river, and how I was sort of both in my body and out of it. A paddling friend had taught me to take two deep breaths and then just go, so I did. But I was too stiff in my hips and leaning back too far, timid when I needed to be aggressive. Gravity threw me into the trough and then the water caught my bow and almost flipped me. There was no way I would've stuck my roll. I remember frantically peeling away, fighting to hang on, thinking, "Too close."

I found myself so scared all I could do was laugh.

When the mustard-orange plume reached Durango, people gathered on that footbridge to watch the water turn. They stood all along the river and waited hours for it to finally happen. No one was applauding or laughing. Tears fell. Kids asked, "Why is this happening?"

According to River Network, an Oregon-based environmental group focused on rivers and watersheds, hard rock mining continues to produce more toxins than any other U.S. industry and has polluted an estimated 12,000 miles of America's rivers alone. In the central and eastern U.S., inactive coal mines continue to drain toxic waters into the stream systems, as do leaking impoundments of coal-ash slurry, a by-product of burning coal for energy. In 2008, the catastrophic accident at the Kingston Fossil power plant in Tennessee sent over a billion gallons of slurry crashing into the Emory River watershed, which has still not recovered.

While progress has been made on abandoned hard rock mines, cleanup efforts are slow and expensive. Work by environmental groups and private citizens has been cut short by liability concerns stemming from the Clean Water Act. According to the law, anyone found to contribute to the pollution of a waterway, even while trying to clean up pollution, can face federal prosecution. Congress's continued failure to enact comprehensive "Good Samaritan" legislation that addresses these liability concerns is another giant whoopsy in this whole mess.

Sometimes when I look back and take a personal appraisal of my life, Durango feels like a bit of a whoopsy. That cold and clingy relationship turned into an ill-conceived marriage and an unsurprising divorce. From where I sit now, I can see the different choices I might've made — the breaking waves and keeper holes I should've spotted sooner — and I can see the emotional fortitude I would've actually had to call up in myself to make those choices and to hit those lines, all of which makes it tempting to believe I might've actually been capable of not fucking everything up. Mostly, I just think I was too young and naïve and tightly wound. Whoops.

What choices can we make now?

We are killing the water on this planet. We are heating and polluting and choking the life out of it. And it's hard to see us stopping.

As I write this, the plume has reached the San Juan River, moving through New Mexico and into Utah. All things flow downstream.

The bright orange has dissipated and the water will continue to clear, making it easy to forget what's in the sediment—sediment that will get kicked up each time the river floods, or if a trout makes its nest in the wrong spot. It's easy to get dazzled by things at the surface. It's easy to pretend water is clean when it's blue, or when it comes out our faucets on demand. But anyone who's ever spent much time on a river knows that what's at the surface is only one part of the story. The same is true for mines.

I ended up not lasting in Durango for very long — maybe not even all the way through July. Certainly not long enough to figure out those waves. I remember stopping on my way out of town to buy my future ex-wife a summer dress she never ended up wearing. As I sped across the US-550 Bridge, I stretched my neck to catch one last glimpse of the water. Some places don't need a lot of time to leave their mark. Some rivers carve right into you.

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