On August 5, 2015, the toxic secrets of the Gold King Mine high in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains spilled forth.

Crews accidentally breached a man-made plug holding back dozens of years of mine wastes. Within hours, three million gallons of heavy metals-laden wastewater spilled into area watersheds and through downstream towns and farms.

The Animas and San Juan Rivers ran a sickly mustard-yellow for days and were closed to all human entry.

Rafting and swimming stopped at the peak of late summer. Residents of towns like Durango stared at the Animas in apprehension and wondered if they could ever play in it again.

Downstream, the alarm was much more profound. Native peoples who believed the San Juan to be sacred and used it to grow their crops saw the colored water as a grave threat to their lives.

The circumstances that led to the Gold King Mine “blowout,” as it’s called, are complex and stretch back more than a century.

Author Jonathan Thompson has attempted to tie it all together in his book River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster.

Thompson is an award-winning environmental journalist who writes for High Country News.

As a Durango native, his proximity to this subject is particularly close. He also worked for years at The Silverton Standard, the newspaper in the isolated former mining town downstream from the Gold King.

See a slideshow of pictures from the Gold King Mine Spill:

I was a Durango resident when the Gold King spill happened. I lived four blocks from the Animas and still remember my shock when I first saw that ominous, almost-alien, mustard-hued water.

Not long after the spill, I interviewed Thompson for public radio station KSUT Four Corners Public Radio. Three years later, Thompson and I met in the studios of KBUT in Crested Butte to discuss his new book and review what’s happened at the Gold King site and affected downstream areas since the spill.

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