On August 5th of 2015, the dilapidated Gold King mine in Silverton, Colorado was accidentally ruptured by an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) work crew which resulted in a torrent of noxious liquid pouring out of the mountainside. There was an estimated 3 million gallons of toxic mine wastewater dumped into the headwaters of the Animas River. The acid mine drainage was full of heavy metals such as lead, arsenic, and extreme levels of iron that contaminated miles and miles of watershed. When iron oxidizes it turns orange like the color of rust on an old chain link fence. Since there was so much iron in the river, it turned into a very vibrant orange. It was not long until the City of Durango, Colorado, which relies heavily on the Animas river not only for drinking water but for tourism revenue, deemed the river safe for recreation. Thankfully there was no extensive fish kill but the long term effects of the toxic waste spill have yet to be determined. Even though the river may be ‘safe’ for kayaking, the worst part of this situation, is that the Gold King mine is not the only abandoned mine spewing toxic sludge into Colorado watersheds. There are an estimated 20,000 such abandoned mines in the Colorado Mountains all slowly leaking into the rivers and streams.
There are many organizations waiting anxiously to aid in the clean up effort of the Animas and the other rivers affected by mine drainage in Colorado. Unfortunately, under the current Clean Water Act, those looking to aid in clean up efforts are required to do an ‘all or nothing’ restoration, which demands extensive infrastructure, heavy machinery under around the clock monitoring and thousands of dollars. Therefore, more often than not, these groups choose to do nothing for fear of extreme costs and for future liability.
There is new Good Samaritan legislation being drafted in Colorado. Under the Good Samaritan organizations waiting on the sidelines would be allowed to conduct partial clean up of mine waste without fear of permanent liability for a problem they did not create. Such legislation would ensure that those responsible for the environmental damage would not get off the hook and would still be responsible. This process of getting our mountain rivers cleaned up has been long an arduous, but progress is being made.
In an effort to raise awareness, Antoinette Lavalle and I created this series of paddles to show the effects of the Gold King spill on the river, the mountain ecosystems, and our community as a whole. A bit about the process. Over the years I have collected old wooden canoe paddles with the hopes of restoring them and selling them for profit. But when the spill happened, I thought it would be a great opportunity to use my skills and resources to create a piece that would benefit society instead of just myself. We took the paddles, sanded them down, removed excess paint and varnish then stabilized any cracks to prevent them from splitting further. Once prepped, we painted the paddles white to show cleanliness. Then we tried to mix an orange that was similar to the color of the river days after the spill. Then we painted the paddle blades to show the water line, as if someone were using them on the river. The stark contrast between the white and orange are eye catching. We then had this idea to push these paddles further by creating an advertising campaign, branding, and stationary that feature a vector paddle with orange blade. But with exams and other deadlines fast approaching, we’ve put the ad campaign on hold.
To learn more or to get involved, visit the website for The San Juan Clean Water Coalitition.