Pick and Sledge

Curious Stories from the American West

100 Years Ago Today: Animas River Turns Cow Teeth Gold

Alamosa Courier, Volume XXXI, Number 7, February 15, 1919

The Animas River turned cow teeth gold? Never heard of anything like it! Oh wait, isn’t this the river where the EPA accidentally blew out 3 million gallons of water containing high levels of iron, arsenic, and other toxins during the Gold King Mine cleanup, which turned the Animas River into something resembling toxic butterbeer in 2015? As if that weren’t bad enough, for the next week after the initial rupture, the Gold King Mine continued to leak toxic material at the rate of 500 gallons per minute.

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Animas River after the Gold King Mine spill in 2015

Isn’t this the river that in 1974 suffered an inundation of 100,000 tons of tailings and waste in the form of gray slime from a failed retaining pond? And isn’t this the river that turned into a chocolate colored sludge from the 416 Fire runoff and drought in 2018?

Animas River in 2018 after ash and soil from the 416 Fire flowed into it

The Animas is certainly not the only river in Colorado that has suffered the devastating effects of pollution, drought, mine runoff, wildfire runoff, warmer temperatures, and bacteria. But it regularly shows the effects of one or all of these in the form of dead fish and plant life.

According to the state’s Division of Mining, Reclamation and Safety, there are 23,000 abandoned mines in the state, many of which are leeching toxic matter into nearby waterways, especially throughout the Colorado Mineral Belt.

Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety

One barrier to effective cleanup of these dangerous mine leaks is a disagreement over whether to designate these areas as Superfund sites. Although the Superfund designation comes with lots of federal money, locals fear the stigma that comes with it, which could negatively impact tourism. This is important because in Silverton, for example, the last of the active mines closed in the 1990s, and the town’s economy now relies heavily on tourism.

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Durango Herald

Although fish and wildlife have, in many parts of the river, survived these massive stresses to their environment, and the EPA has found ways to proceed with water cleanup without the Superfund status in Silverton, history points to more catastrophes coming soon to the Animas and other rivers throughout Colorado.

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