Orion Blog

Letter from Colorado: On the Dirty, Deep-seated Origins of the Animas River Spill


In early August, the EPA accidentally released three million gallons of contaminated water from the Gold King mine into Cement Creek, a tributary of Colorado’s Animas River. Jeff Snowbarger, who’s at work on a novel about the development of the region, spent time on the banks of the Animas, where he’s discovered connections between the river’s past and present.


“Mustard-colored”: that’s the hue various commentators settled used to describe the shocking plume of thick orange mine waste that snaked across the Colorado Plateau earlier this month. But to anyone who saw the sickening photos, much less saw the color in person, this description is unappetizing at best, at worst almost offensive. To me, the color looked more like liquid Hell.

I’ve spent the best part of my last three summers jeeping around the rugged mining district that encompasses the headwaters of the Animas River while researching a novel in progress. Three weeks before the horrendous ooze was tickled to a gush by EPA contractors, my five-year-old son and I drove right past the offending mine adit. Even then, large swaths of the old Gladstone mining district were scabbed the color of Lucifer’s tears.

In mining country this color is common, from retention ponds to the waste rock piles that pock the Rocky Mountains, marking the test adits early prospectors blasted into the slopes with burro-loads of TNT. But this more recent disaster is a dramatic finale of sorts. It’s like the raucous Fourth of July display that follows an evening of kids waving sparklers, scribbling their names upon the dusk. This bold stain fouling the Animas River had a quiet lead up, and to better understand this odd color, one needs to know its origin.

The San Juan mining boom took off in the early 1870s. Before the Brunot Treaty of 1873, this wilderness was home to the Utes, who hunted the high country and used it to hide stolen horses. But the Utes were only part-timers here. Winter made the region uninhabitable. Some sources suggest that this pocket of Colorado was the last permanently settled region in the lower forty-eight. Fifteen-foot snowfalls, negative-sixty-degree temperatures, avalanches, and the constant threat of Ute justice leveled against trespassers gave even the most leather-skinned pioneers reason to steer clear. Did I mention this place is rugged? The earliest footpaths into the mining district were so steep in sections that prospectors, miners, and teamsters had to raise and lower their usually sure-footed burros over the passes with ropes wound around snubbing posts to slow the pack animals’ descent. Bones blanketed many of the ravines, and not just from burros and mules.

Despite these formidable obstacles, the region boomed. There was gold in the hills, at least a little, and silver, mountains of the stuff. Riches were there for the picking, shoveling, sorting, milling, transporting, smelting, and stamping into lots of pocket change. Back then, if Americans were good at anything it was resource extraction. Just ask the North Woods timber barons, the prairie buffalo hunters, market duck hunters, egret feather milliners, and the generation who rendered billions of passenger pigeons extinct. In a similar manner, the San Juans went boom and did what booms do. The bust in these parts was largely due to the 1893 Silver Purchase Act repeal. Another factor was logistical. After much of the easy silver had been gobbled up, what deposits remained were deeper and more difficult to extract.

Water, tons of it, posed one of the biggest hurdles to the San Juan miners. Many of the active mines in the 1890s and onward regularly flooded, and by regularly, I mean always. But it wasn’t so much the amount of water, but the kind of water—seepage so corrosive it destroyed iron pipes and pumps and drill bits in a matter of weeks, if not days. The water drowning these ore-rich shafts was so toxin-laced it snacked on metal. Imported wooden pipes, fashioned from western redwood wired together, remedied the plague somewhat. The pipes looked like peeled logs with long, skinny snakes coiled around their girth. Despite the rugged, nearly unscalable terrain, and despite the bitter, burying snows and avalanches, and despite market crashes and the economic toll associated with extracting these excellent mineral formations, it was toxic water that eventually broke the region’s ore fever.

Slowly but surely, mining corporations and magnates ceased production and abandoned the wealthy shafts and adits. One drive down The Million Dollar Highway, the gut-wringing stretch between the mining-towns-turned-tourist-havens of Ouray and Silverton, reveals everything else the miners abandoned: ghost towns, bunkhouses, rusted steam boilers, powderhouses, the skeletons of rotting churches, one-room cabins, and towering mine headframes. The sites are still littered with busted whiskey bottles (now legally protected from pillagers and plunderers), shattered tea saucers from Japan, twisted ore rails, toppled ore carts, rusted hinges, spikes, brackets, and tons and tons of sulfur-tinged waste rock, once hauled cart by cart from the earth’s gaseous bowels. These piles of rock are the discarded tailings that buried the ore from which some magnates made a killing and the miners themselves earned three dollars a day, true riches for an 1890s working man. Also abandoned in the mining exodus were mountains full of the foul water that helped drive the operations to their knees.

Back then it was a collective, generational decision to leave the water—to let it pool, fester, and build—just as it was a collective decision to “reserve” land for the Utes, slick the North Woods from Maine to Minnesota, and feast on delicacies like buffalo tongue, wild duck liver pate, and baby pigeons. This was how a free people behaved. And this is what seems buried in our current disaster, the notion that decisions collectively made in the name of freedom almost always have detrimental consequences for those who follow.

Today we’re stuck in the same pattern America found itself in following Appomattox. A hundred-and-fifty-years ago, feeling like the Civil War had decided its most pressing generational issue, our post-war nation staked its claim on the short term, come hell or high water. Our history has come full circle. Ever since the Cold War warmed and Afghanistan moved to page two, it seems we’ve tired of our generational responsibilities and collectively buried our focus in other distractions. I’m an offender, I admit it. I’ve scrambled up and down these slopes, where men once wielded picks and blasting caps to bore through quartz veins and pre-Cambrian granite, my eyes glued to my smartphone. It’s a wonderful research tool. Strangely enough, maybe perfectly enough, my smartphone requires just what the Old Timers flocking to the San Juans hoped to find: rare, precious metals. Today, instead of blasting holes in the Animas valleys or the Klondike, I give my cash to the Bolivians and Chinese to holler Fire in the hole! on my behalf.

In situations like the one we’re currently facing the hard truth of things is a precious commodity, and often the thing most hid. While this most recent display of our material lust actually occurred on Cement Creek, it’s the Animas River—The River of Souls—that’s been commanding headlines. This makes sense enough. Cement Creek tumbles down a sparsely settled valley north of Silverton, while the Animas parts the pasturelands of Hermosa and cuts through the heart of Durango, both more densely populated.

If my research and time spent bumbling around these hills and derelict camps—where a generation of men once wagered everything and won or lost, or just earned enough to pay the Chinese launderers and painted ladies on Blair Street—has taught me one thing, it’s that the San Juans are a far more complex place than meets the vacationing eye, however visually dramatic and stunning it might be. Where most eyes today see splendid massive peaks, long gone prospectors saw a packed treasure chest. Where the Utes once saw a sacred realm, jeeps and four-wheelers now see a wild playground. Where once-pristine streams babbled, now flows a big orange slug.

Even a closer look at the river’s name reveals something deeper and perhaps more meaningful. It’s thought the first Spaniards to ford the Animas actually dubbed it Rio de las Animas Perdidas, The River of Lost Souls. Truth be told, this early nomenclature is historically speculative, and today we just call it the Animas. But, it seems to me, this river of goo had finally lived up to its fuller appellation. Why? Because the raw color we saw last month wasn’t simply “mustard-colored.” The River of Lost Souls flowed like liquid Hell. Its color reflected a nation’s worth of short-sighted missteps. The hue was so riveting and sulfuric you could almost picture the Devil himself, dropping his towel and giddily flapping his arms, before landing one wicked bellyflop after another.

Jeff Snowbarger was featured in Tin House as their New Voice in Fiction, and Best American Short Stories 2010 declared his story “Bitter Fruit” one of the year’s notable publications. He is an Assistant Professor of fiction at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. His novel in progress about the San Juan region is tentatively titled The Continental Spine.

Concrete Progress: LA’s Creative Approach to Freshwater Storage? Thousands of Plastic Balls

Concrete Progress is an ongoing series of columns by Peter Brewitt devoted to exploring America’s infrastructure. It is part of Orion’s Reimagining Infrastructure project.


The Los Angeles Reservoir, 175 acres of freshwater destined for the taps of our second-largest city, looks, to me, like an oil slick that has begun to freeze into some ghastly ice sheet. A closer look, though, reveals thousands of little plastic balls, bobbing about at the water line. They’re neither litter nor art installation, though Los Angeles is rich in both; they are, in fact, the most imaginative technique I’ve heard of for maintaining water quality and quantity in Southern California.

As you surely know, California has been enduring a horrifying, though not surprising, drought for the last several years—and while help may be on the way this winter, the situation remains pretty dire. There have been a lot of creative responses to the drought over the last few years, some of which I’ve written about here, here, and here, and which I assumed would be my last entryways to the topic for a while. But when, in mid-August, my Facebook feed drowned under a deluge of something called “shade balls,” I knew I had to revisit the Golden State and its water problems.

The people with the thankless task of watering four million Angelenos are employed by the LA Department of Water and Power. Urban water is a massive and intensely difficult issue—I often tell my students that if they get into urban water they will have jobs, and headaches, for life. Reservoirs in any city, but especially an arid one like Los Angeles, are subject to all manner of urban problems, from litter to the urban heat island effect. In 2005, the EPA released a rule upgrading the management of finished water reservoirs—reservoirs containing water that goes straight to the people without further treatment. New ones needed to come with a cover. Pre-existing reservoirs could either be covered or send their water to be treated, which is expensive. Some places have dealt with this by storing the water underground and building parks on top, but that idea, while good enough to mention here, is not feasible everywhere. How to cover an artificial lake?

The first thing you might think of would be a gigantic tarp, and it is, in fact, a popular idea. But to cover the LA Reservoir with some sort of floating tarp would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. A guy named Brian White, who worked for LADWP as a biologist, gets credit as the first to think of covering the water with floating objects, like an oversubscribed kiddie pool at a six-year-old’s birthday. He’d seen ponds at airports with balls to keep birds off the water (and out of 747 engines) and transferred the idea to LADWP’s reservoirs. As of mid-August, under the supervision of Mayor Eric Garcetti, the final 20,000 of 96 million balls rolled down the concrete and into the water. The total cost of the program is $34.5 million (36 cents a ball)—a pretty good deal compared to a new water treatment plant or a floating tarp system.

The balls have two functions. The most obvious one, of course, is shade. The balls will cover the water and prevent it from evaporating, saving an estimated 300 million gallons of water per year (LA consumes over a billion gallons a week, for a little perspective). Evaporation is one of the catch-22s of our Western water infrastructure—to have a desert civilization you must store water, but if you do, the same desert conditions that make water storage necessary will suck that water right up into the air. For instance, Lake Mead, the immense reservoir held back by the Hoover Dam, loses 800,000 acre-feet of water, or 2.6 trillion gallons, to evaporation every year. Shade balls present a nice, cheapish way to alleviate the problem.

The balls’ more important function, though, is to maintain water quality. As water gets warmer, algae blooms, and chemical reactions create pollution where there was none before. The central concern is bromate, which may cause cancer. Bromate is created when ozone, which is used for water purification, combines with bromide, which occurs naturally in water. UV light kickstarts the reaction (photoactivation is the term), and the result is a plague for water managers everywhere. Eight years ago, LADWP had to drain two of its reservoirs because of bromate pollution. The shade balls’ pigment, a substance called carbon black, maximizes their ability to absorb UV light, keeping it, and bromate, out of LA’s water.

I have to be honest. At first glance I figured that this was a really stupid idea and was expecting to say so here. And of course, it’s not ideal to produce millions of plastic balls—it would be better, say, to use less water. But other than this broad objection, there seem to be very few downsides to the approach. The balls, which I was sure would quickly bounce away and become trash, contain a little potable water themselves as ballast and cannot really go anywhere. Carbon black prevents them from breaking down under UV light, allowing them to last for decades. It’s a food-safe pigment, and is used as a food coloring in Australia and New Zealand. The balls are even made by a local company, called XavierC, which was founded in part to hire disabled veterans. The only downside, for some, is that Angelenos who are too creepy, sketchy, or shady in their pursuit of romantic attachments, are now known, in local parlance, as “shade balls.”

Peter Brewitt has wondered about infrastructure ever since a flood kept him away from three days of kindergarten. A professor of environmental studies at Wofford College, he is devoted to understanding how people decide to restore and remake their environments.

Concrete Progress: The Charlotte Airport’s 8,000 Square Feet of Worms

Concrete Progress is an ongoing series of columns by Peter Brewitt devoted to exploring America’s infrastructure. It is part of Orion’s Reimagining Infrastructure project.


Charlotte-Douglas International Airport, in Charlotte, North Carolina, saw 44 million passengers last year. That’s about twenty-three people per worm.

The worms in question, 1.9 million of them, live south of the airport, at CLT’s waste facility – the ragged legions of travelers making their way across the world do not see them. What those travelers do do is create trash. A big airport—Charlotte’s is one of the busiest in the world—produces a mountain of waste, from single-use water bottles to dirty tissues and much in between. At an average of 120,000 passengers a day, the airport represents the population of a city the size of Hartford, Connecticut, all eating takeout and wadding up paper towels.

I’ve been one of those passengers—Charlotte’s my closest big airport – and when I make my way between car and plane, I see a lot of public relations posters about how sustainable the airport is. I must say that I’ve suspected greenwashing. But when I looked into what CLT is really doing, I felt sheepish. It’s true: Charlotte uses a wide range of sustainable features, from low-flow water fixtures to a LEED-certified fire station. But the most impressive thing, to me, is that they use worms to turn their compost into soil.

Worm bins, as many readers probably know, are an increasingly popular means of home composting. Vermiposting, it’s called. You make a bin, give the worms some humidity, feed them waste, and wait as they turn food into what are known as castings (fresh, nutrient-rich dirt, essentially), which are much in demand from gardeners. Worm bins are efficient: you can use them in an apartment easily enough, and, if properly cared for, they do not smell.

Vermiposting at home is one thing, but employing worms to transform airport-scale waste is another. CLT churns out twenty-seven tons of waste a day, 70 percent of which is recyclable. The remaining portion that’s compostable—not just food, but bathroom waste and paper and leaves from potted plants—is broken down to manageable sizes and sent to the worms. CLT’s worm bin is 8,000 square feet and kept indoors, so as not to attract predators. The castings go to fertilize the airport’s landscaping. Nearly two-thirds of the airport’s waste is now diverted from the landfill.

I should note, though, that the business side of keeping worms has not been without difficulty. The airport has had some conflicts with the company that started running the facility, and there have been cost and machinery problems. But this does not change the system, or its benefits, which include using castings instead of landscape fertilizer and saving on landfill costs.

Driving by CLT not long ago, I thought of how amazing flying is—if our ancestors saw a 747 roar across the sky, it would have blown their minds. It is an eternal dream of humanity realized, and a crucial part of our infrastructure. But it’s easy to forget the ecological impact of airports, and hard to know how to take individual responsibility for it. As a result, it’s often up to airports themselves to address the issue.

There’s great reading available on Charlotte’s innovations: from the company that runs the worm program, from the airport itself, and from the local business journal. Information on worm bins are all over the web.

Peter Brewitt has wondered about infrastructure ever since a flood kept him away from three days of kindergarten. A professor of environmental studies at Wofford College, he is devoted to understanding how people decide to restore and remake their environments.


Ana Maria Spagna on Her New Book, 100 Skills You’ll Need for the End of the World (as We Know It)

100SkillsCvrWhen Orion’s Enumeration department made its debut in 2013, one of the first contributions was from Ana Maria Spagna, whose writing has appeared frequently in the magazine. Her piece, “10 Skills to Hone for a Post-Oil Future,” was a surprising mix of the familiar and the nearly forgotten—from rigging and grafting, to houseguest hosting and handwriting. A new book that expands on Spagna’s Enumeration, with illustrations by Brian Cronin, is just out from Storey Publishing.


As a kid, I sat at a manual typewriter transcribing the Top 40 as Kasey Kasem counted it down on AM radio: Rod Stewart, Donna Summer, the Pointer Sisters, Billy Joel. As an adult, working on trail crew, week in and week out, I’d handwrite a list of everything that needed to go in my pack, even if it was the same as the week before: rain gear, bug net, work gloves, paperback novel, chocolate. So when Orion invited me to make a list for the magazine’s Enumeration department, I jumped right aboard, pitching a handful of ideas, and the one that stuck was “10 Skills to Hone for the Post-Oil World.”

The list was as serious and not-as-serious as the items in my trail pack were crucial and not-as-crucial. Navigating by the stars? Depends on how lost you are or how cloudy it is. Sharpening a crosscut? Depends on how many logs you need to cut. Sleeping? Well…

Work on a trail crew long enough or live in a very small place and you learn to take a perverse kind of pride in skills that aren’t universally necessary—at least not yet (hoarding, knot tying, rigging, blacksmithing).

So when Storey Publishing asked me to come up with a list of 100 skills, I was both excited and a little daunted. The challenge wasn’t coming up with 100 skills. That was a snap. I asked people in person and via e-mail and on social media and had way more than 100 skills in no time. (Several stemmed from comments in response to the original Orion piece.) The problem was the whole idea of the end of the world—“I’m no doomsdayer,” I explained to the editors. They said they got it. They said they liked the slantways sense of possibility in the original list. So it began.

Some of the skills I already had: stone working, composting, home brewing. Some I’ll likely never master: knitting (I have no fine motor skills), horse and mule handling (animals that large terrify me), cobbling (unless you count the second definition: cobbling together a living). I fought hard to keep hiding, but gave in when editors insisted upon including financial literacy. I let go of crosscut saw sharpening, as perhaps too esoteric, and accepted barbering grudgingly, knowing how poorly it goes when someone tries to cut hair with a mirror and a Swiss army knife. I practiced making cheese, researched foraging medicinal herbs, and watched a friend spinning wool. I wrote up a draft and awaited the illustrations. Anxiously.


Illustrations by Brian Cronin, used with permission of Storey Publishing.

I’ve read recent novels that describe every version of a changed world from The Year of the Flood to Station Eleven to Our Endless Numbered Days. The list could go on and on, and the survival skills they presume lie everywhere on the spectrum from Schwarzenegger to Shakespeare.

My own list leans neither Maxwell Smart-tricky (unless you count tinkering) nor Tom Brown-hardcore (unless you count dowsing). The truth is, whether you’re talking about the four horsemen or nuclear winter or climate change, thinking about the apocalypse has always been a means to changing our behavior now. What can we do to stave off the end? What can we do to make the most of the time we’ve got?

So I worried: what if the illustrator didn’t get it? What if the illustrations were too literal, too dark, too earnest, or too wacky? But as soon as I saw Brian Cronin’s sketches, I knew he got it. They’re all whimsy and speculation, imagination without grimness.

Everyone I talk to has more skills to add to the next list from soap making to sending smoke signals, from yodeling to burying the dead. That’s the whole point. Make your own list. Compare it with your friends’ lists. Conversing. Negotiating. Revising. Skills for now, skills for later.

Concrete Progress: From Waste to Watts at One of the World’s Biggest Automobile Plants


Concrete Progress is an ongoing series of columns by Peter Brewitt devoted to exploring America’s infrastructure. It is part of Orion’s Reimagining Infrastructure project. Above: a landfill flare burns off excess methane, a potent greenhouse gas and a potential source of energy.


The BMW factory in Spartanburg, South Carolina loomed above my van, immense, impassive, absolute. It was one of the biggest buildings I’d ever seen, blotting out the horizon and stretching off into the distance. I felt like a Game of Thrones peasant riding a horse-drawn cart up to a castle.

In actuality, I was taking my students on a field trip. We were learning about globalization, and there are few better examples of globalization than a German car company making X4 coupes in upstate South Carolina. It was a truly fascinating tour—the windshield robots alone were worth the price of admission—but the whole time, as I looked through my safety glasses at cars being hoisted up and whisked through the air, I thought, “This place must devour fossil fuel.” But I was wrong. When I asked our tour guide how BMW powers its operation, I found that the factory runs not on coal from strip mines or oil from offshore wells, but on gas from the local landfill. BMW churns out 1,200 cars a day mostly on trash.

The process starts with municipal solid waste. This is the technical term for household trash, the plastic wrappers and takeout containers and appliance cases that you cannot recycle or compost. Most people bag it up and leave it for pickup; a few cart it off to the dump (as we used to call it), where it’s thrown into a lined pit and left to decompose. When full, the landfill is capped, typically with clay or some other impermeable layer.

This cap is meant to keep waste products from leaking out, but it also keeps oxygen from getting in. The stuff inside, therefore, decomposes anaerobically, with little organisms consuming the material in a process similar to fermentation. As a result, all of the stuff in your trash bags goes through several forms before ending its solid life as landfill gas (or LFG), which consists of roughly half methane (CH4) and half CO2 and water.

In about a quarter of landfills, LFG is flared (which is to say, burned) as it rises out of the ground. In others, it simply drifts off into the atmosphere to join the rest of our greenhouse gases as they warm up the earth. Landfills are the third-largest source of human-produced methane in the United States, and methane is a far more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2 (a pound of it captures twenty times as much heat as a pound of CO2). The waste is also unstable—LFG can be the cause of fires and explosions at landfill sites.

But while it’s a troublesome waste in some contexts, it’s a powerful fuel in others. Methane is essentially what you’re using if you heat your house with natural gas. It’s an increasingly important part of the American economy, and it’s tremendously controversial. As readers of Sandra Steingraber’s columns in Orion will be aware, natural gas is what fracking is for. In the case of landfills, however, methane is wafting into the air not from fossil fuel deposits but from our own waste. The key is using it.

In 1999, the EPA’s Landfill Methane Outreach Program suggested that BMW consider the Palmetto Landfill, ten miles east of its Spartanburg plant, as a means of supplying its huge energy needs. An enormous operation on the lookout for efficiencies, BMW soon had a pipeline sending gas from the trash to the factory and producing 25 percent of its power. The system works the way a coal mine would—the LFG is processed to remove impurities, then sent along for use—but without degrading new landscapes, creating new waste, or depleting a nonrenewable resource. LFG can be turned into electricity, or burned directly for heating. Its waste products are water and CO2. After upgrading its generators in 2009, BMW’s Spartanburg plan uses the Palmetto landfill for over 60 percent of its energy, saving the company an estimated $5 million a year.

Around the country, there are 621 landfill gas projects under operation right now, supplying hospitals in Wisconsin and prisons in Pennsylvania and dump trucks in Louisiana. The sad thing is, this is less than a third of the landfills in the country. By my calculation, about half of our nation’s landfills neither flare their gas nor put it to use, but simply let it continue to pollute the atmosphere. Still, it’s an industry that’s growing quickly: LFG use has quadrupled in less than twenty years. To date, the EPA has found 450 candidate landfills, all of which generate methane. Hopefully they’ll be turned into sources of heat and power in the near future.

Peter Brewitt has wondered about infrastructure ever since a flood kept him away from three days of kindergarten. A professor of environmental studies at Wofford College, he is devoted to understanding how people decide to restore and remake their environments.