On August 5, 2015, a group of whitewater paddlers from Durango, Colo., arrived at the put in of the Class V Baker’s Box section of the Animas River. Instead of the clear green waters that are characteristic of the river in late summer, the paddlers found the water glowing with an unnatural orange color.
Cody Beach, one of the kayakers on the river that day, says that the group immediately guessed that something had gone wrong upstream at the old mines near Silverton, Colo. "We arrived at the put in and decided to go for it anyway," says Beach. "That was before we knew what was in the waste. I wore ear plugs but I wish I'd had nose plugs too. I got a little bit in my mouth when I first got into the river and it tasted like shit. You couldn't see anything through the water."
When the paddlers returned to Durango, they learned toxic wastewater was accidentally spilled a day earlier by an EPA crew that was working on a collapsed mine entrance near Silverton. Water had backed up in the shaft of the Gold King Mine, and the crew was working to safely drain the water when the dam of debris was breached. The river was soon closed to all recreation, irrigation canals were shut and municipal water intakes were turned off as the town and county declared a state of emergency. The accident would eventually release 3 million gallons of contaminated water into the Animas.
A photograph of a separate trio of kayakers who were also unaware of the river closure ran on the front page of The Durango Herald the next morning and soon became the most widely distributed image of the spill.
As of Sunday, a full analysis of the metals released by the accident had not yet been completed, but the news was already sending shockwaves through the local recreation economy. "It's a total disaster for us," says Matt Wilson, owner of 4Corners Riversports in Durango. "The river has been closed since Thursday and I've lost over $15,000 in cancellations already. The poor Animas River took a major hit and we still haven't heard from the EPA as to what the exact dangers of the toxins are."
Authorities do not have an estimate for when the river will be reopened for business and recreational use.
According to Wilson,the river is slowly starting to become clear again, but the impacts of the disaster will be felt for a long time. "Every time we get a bit of rain, it stirs up the toxic sediment that settled in the oxbows and eddies. It's going to take a big high water event to actually clean the river before it can start to heal."
The Animas River is not the only river affected by the spill. The wastewater is moving downstream at approximately 4 miles per hour, and has now reached the confluence with the San Juan River on its way to Lake Powell on the Colorado River. Glen Canyon National Recreation Area issued a warning to visitors to avoid drinking, swimming or recreating on the San Juan River arm of Lake Powell.
An air of uncertainty has residents of Durango nervous about the future of the river and their drinking water. "We're in the dark right now," says Wilson. "We really need to get the EPA toxicity report before we know the long term effects."
–Stay tuned for more coverage of the spill on CanoeKayak.com