Southwest Colorado Mining History

Duane Smith, a local historian and retired Fort Lewis professor, said that even in the late 1800s, downstream communities wondered why the Animas River changed color, as mining practices of the day were unregulated. A 1899 newsclip from the Durango Democrat, indicated the early tension between Durango and Silverton: “The question that is crowding upon Durango thick and fast is one of water. The mill slimes from Silverton are now reaching us.” According to a 1932 report in the Silverton Standard & the Miner, a La Plata County farmer won a legal action against Sunnyside Mining and Milling after the company dumped mine tailings into the Animas River, damaging the farmer’s land and stock. The article does not name the terms of the settlement, but the farmer sought $25,000 in damages (about $500k in today’s dollars). In a great November 17th article by the Durango Herald, archival photos of mine tailing pits above Silverton highlight that not much has changed when it comes to complaints about mine waste since the region’s early settlement. “Ranchers and farmers who want to use water for irrigation in the lower valley have always attempted to force the mine and mill operators to keep the tailings from polluting the streams; however without much success,” the original caption for the 1940 photograph said. The mine tailing photo is especially relevant after the August 5th Gold King Mine blowout, which sent 3 million gallons of acid mine drainage down the Animas River, and reinvigorated a decades-old problem of water quality in the river’s upper basin.

Starting in the 1960s, a new wave of environmental consciousness swept across the country, and concerns about mine drainage north of Silverton, as well as radioactive materials in Durango, rose to the forefront of public discourse. In June 1975, the Durango Herald reported a tailings pond broke north of Silverton, forcing downstream users to shut off water pumps for months. Similar to the recent Gold King Mine spill, wildlife officials then placed a cage filled with fish in the river, only to find no significant die-off of the population. Then, three years later, Lake Emma, an alpine body of water the size of three football fields, broke through the Sunnyside Mine and emptied 5 to 10 million gallons of black, mineral-heavy water down the Animas valley. The last mining operation in Silverton ended in 1991.