Are you at risk for a toxic event?

August 17, 2015

It was once called “The River of Lost Souls.”

Named by Spanish explorers in the 1700s, what is now the Animas (Spanish: “souls”) River, in Southwest Colorado, flows south out of the San Juan Mountains โ€“ past Durango โ€“ into New Mexico, where it ultimately joins the San Juan River on its way to join the Colorado River at Lake Powell.

The Animas River is a vital source of potable drinking water and agricultural irrigation to the people who draw from it in Colorado, New Mexico and โ€“ after its confluence with the San Juan โ€“ Utah. In the spring and summer, thousands of vacationers spend days in whitewater rafts enjoying its free-flowing drop through the canyons. Native American tribes โ€“ including the Ute and Navajo peoples โ€“ draw from it for human consumption and crop irrigation. Though challenged with a multi-year drought that has parched America’s southwest, its vital role in the region has been even more significant…

About two weeks ago โ€“ Wednesday, August 5th โ€“ workers with the Environmental Protection Agency were running a backhoe at the Gold King Mine, a site near the headwaters of the Animas that had been abandoned for nearly a century. They were there because of a long-running “leak” of contaminated water โ€“ at about 50-250 gallons a minute โ€“ that contained arsenic, lead and other heavy metals that had been left behind from the mining activities that, in its 30-year productive period, produced 350,000 ounces of gold. An irritation: stopping this relatively minor ooze from the mine site was their ultimate objective.

Their backhoe breached an earthen dam wall at the mine, and three million gallons of toxic waste water was released into the Animas River, affecting everyone in its downstream path.

The yellow plume has dramatically altered August, for recreational paddlers and subsistence farmers. Governors are declaring disasters and committing cash for cleanups. Officials at the EPA โ€“ the federal agency charged with being the watchdog enforcers for all-things environmental โ€“ are speechless to explain how it happened, or what its long-term effects will be.

Long term effects; unintended consequences; collateral damage: terms that attach to real-life will undoubtedly be included in the retrospective writings that archive this unnatural disaster. Gold is a necessity of modern life: jewelry, investments and dental inlays all draw from the gold supply. Cell-phones have about 50 mg of gold, worth 50ยข currently; the cell-phone industry uses $500 million of Au (the chemical symbol for gold) every year. Blame the miners? No; they’re giving us what we want…

Life is messy; human activity leaves a ring in the tub of history. The same agency that is decrying carbon footprints by private industry is now responsible for a toxic spill of epic proportions. No one has figured out how to supply a consumer society without consuming.

If you can’t get what you want โ€“ in this case, gold โ€“ without some messy byproducts, what’s the solution? Simple: clean up after yourself in real-time; don’t leave it for someone else to deal with, later.

Relational life parallels material life: while you go about the demands of every day activities, byproducts that are potentially toxic โ€“ when accumulated over time โ€“ need attention. In gold mining, everyone knows that arsenic presents a problem: when will it be addressed? In relationships, the push to produce and the pursuits of professional objectives can leave residual, toxic effects on the people who are “working in the mine,” and who live downstream in the relational network.

Monitoring waste in relationships is a daily nuisance… but, without that discipline, the potential for a future spill that can be significantly destructive is real. Find offenses fast, and use the confess/repent/apologize/restore formula to assure that the inevitable build-up never releases to your downstream relationship connections…

Bob Shank





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