In 2015, the EPA hired private contractors to clear the entrance to the abandoned Gold King Mine outside of Silverton, Colorado. They sought to determine the mine’s impact on contamination of the nearby Animas River. There had been a steady trickle of highly acidic waste coming from the mine since its closure in 1991, but the workers were not expecting to find 3 million gallons of highly pressurized orange sludge waiting on the other side of a massive plug in the mine. Those present were fortunate to escape with their lives as the poisonous mixture flowed down the mountain, eventually draining into the Animas River. The river turned a murky orange and immediately a ban was placed on drinking or swimming in the water due to the high amounts of toxic lead and arsenic. Exactly one year after the disaster, the EPA placed the region surrounding Silverton on the superfund list, qualifying it for federal funding for clean-up efforts. Silverton had actually been fighting Superfund designation for over 20 years. Residents feared it would impact the region’s primary economic market - tourism.
Silverton has a history of defending itself. Concern over pollution was a century-old affair, but the people of Silverton vehemently defended their principal sources of income: mining and processing raw ore. In the early 20th century, residents of the downstream town of Durango were fed up with Silverton’s pollution. In 1902, the Durango Democrat complained, “There never was a word or sentence uttered against the purity and excellence of the Animas river water until Silverton, in open violation of the law, began using the stream for a dumping ground for garbage and mill tailings.” The Silverton Standard shot back, “The thing for Durango to do is employ its energy in providing a water supply from some of the many pure mountain streams[…] It certainly cannot afford to take any action that will annoy or embarrass the mining and milling of Silverton.” However, Silverton was also well accustomed to the economic booms and busts associated with mining. In response, the city had turned to tourism as early as the 1930s. The Animas River provided adventurous river rafting experiences, and the surrounding San Juan Mountains left visitors awestruck. When the last mines closed in the 1990s, tourism was the largest industry left in Silverton.
With the same passion that residents once defended their mines, they defended their reputation as a scenic mountain paradise. One lifelong Silverton resident remarked, “We’re a tourist area. You hear the word ‘Superfund’ site and 99 percent think ‘danger.’ So why would you want to go to a Superfund site?” It is not as though the people of Silverton are pro-pollution, for there is an organized community effort to clean up the Animas, but rather they are understandably committed to protecting what brings business into their town. Some residents blame the EPA for the leak, while others fault the Gold King Mine Company for the pollution in the first place; however, everyone in Silverton can agree that the EPA’s Superfund program is not welcome relief from environmental tragedy, but a death sentence on the town’s marketability as a popular destination.
The Animas River was deemed safe for drinking and recreational use weeks after the spill, though there are still consequences from the disaster. Today the EPA continues clean-up operations near Silverton and the site has grown to include 48 mines that risk contaminating groundwater. A water treatment plant was constructed in 2015, though according to the EPA, “migration of contaminated groundwater is not stabilized.” The impact of human exposure to the toxic waste is uncertain, but contaminated waste reached as far as New Mexico, Utah and the Navajo Nation, harming crops and livestock near the Animas and San Juan Rivers. Despite their initial misgivings towards the EPA and the Superfund program, the people of Silverton now work together with the federal government to clean-up the last mess and assure this never happens again.