I just read Jonathan P. Thompson’s The River of Lost Souls (Torrey House Press, March 2018). The book unsettled me. Profoundly.
On August 5, 2015, EPA contractors who were investigating a portal of the Gold King Mine above Durango accidentally released an estimated 3 million gallons of acid drainage laden with heavy metals that had been backing up for decades in the abandoned mine. [Photos and timelines at the High Country News ]
I never knew that the name of the Animas River, one of the three rivers running through my hometown of Farmington, New Mexico, meant River of Souls. Still less did I know that someone later added the adjective “perdidas” to the name, making it the River of Lost Souls. Jonathan P. Thompson knew that, however, and now I know it too.
Nomen est omen.
I knew the Animas was deadly, having experienced that on a tubing trip in junior high school during which I and my inner tube were swept into a downed tree raking the swift current and then down onto the rake’s teeth. Before the heavy water drowned me, I grasped a thick branch and hauled myself to the surface. Gasping there, I discovered that the branch was one leg of a dead steer, like me swept into the teeth of the dead tree.
Before I read Thompson’s River of Lost Souls, subtitled “The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster” (Torrey House Press, 2018), I didn’t know that the baby teeth we donated to science in Farmington in 1959 were used for a study of the effects of spills at a uranium mine upstream.
The Animas River below Durango was polluted with chemical and radioactive materials. Water, mud, and algae samples from Station 2, two miles below the [uranium] mill, were one hundred to five hundred times more radioactive than the control samples taken above the mill. . . . Water that [people] drank from [their] taps in Farmington had ten times the radioactivity of Durango’s tap water. . . . In addition to the radioactive materials, the river had high levels of zinc, arsenic, aluminum, lead, and other toxic metals, both from the upstream metal-mining tailings and the uranium mill.
Now I know this and much more about the river that drains the mountains from Silverton to Durango of the waste products of rapacious and unregulated mining and that runs through the San Juan Basin between Durango and Shiprock, a landscape that has been devastated by unregulated and rapacious drilling.
Reading the book was like reading an intimate history of my acidic home waters.
My book Immortal for Quite Some Time grew out of the years in Farmington that were an early and indelible influence on who I am. I worked in the first power plant on the Navajo Reservation Thompson writes about, one that metastasized into a set of massive coal-powered plants that have thoroughly fouled the air of the region. I put myself through college working as a roughneck in the oil fields he writes are now the source the world’s worst methane leakage into the atmosphere. I bought a season pass for Purgatory ski area’s second season, not suspecting the resort was financed by oil field profits.
Of course Farmington was a coal- and oil-powered town at the confluence of the La Plata, San Juan, and Animas Rivers. We moved there because of the boom. We hiked in the mountains above Durango. We found the old mines with their colorful tailings quaint reminders of the history of the region.
We didn’t know the Gold King Mine would color the river bright orange in 2015. We didn’t know about the uranium mines that had irradiated the river. We didn’t know about earlier spills that had dyed the Animus the color of aluminum and that had hourly dumped as much mine waste into the river as the entire Gold King spill.
The 2015 spill is simply the latest disaster in an ugly history of disasters perpetrated by people and corporations for whom profit trumps (pun intended: see the current administration’s dismantling of EPA protections and opening up the “interior” to rapacious and unregulated drilling and mining) the health and well being of inhabitants (plant, animal, human) for whom this entire beautiful and deeply troubled ecosystem is home.
This is Thompson’s home as well, and in the book he weaves his own personal history as a child in Durango and as an investigative newspaperman in Silverton into the history of the mining region. It is a potent mix.
I, however, was one of the “folks downstream” who had no clue.
A final note: for some reason the High Country News essay by Thompson doesn’t mention the book from which it is drawn. It should. This is a wonderful and terrifying book.