When the River Died, a Quiet Community Raised Its Voice in Anger

American heroes

  • Michael Tennesen
  • Jun 01, 1998
Ignacio Rodriguez still vividly remembers the horror he felt six years ago after seeing dozens of dead trout lining the banks of the Alamosa River in front of his southern Colorado home. 

At the time, the trout were the latest victims of a series of toxic-substance spills emanating several miles upriver at the Summitville Mine--spills that began when the gold mine went into operation in 1986. "Before the fish had always come back," says Rodriguez. "But this time the wipeout was total. The toxics killed fish, frogs, insects--every living thing in the river. And it was permanent. The river is still dead today."

In December 1992, after Galactic Resources Ltd., the Canadian owners of the mine, went bankrupt and walked away from the mess they created, taxpayers were left holding the bag. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) soon went into emergency response (a process that opens up funding for toxic cleanup).

Rodriguez winces as he recalls how his San Luis Valley farming community which used Alamosa River water for recreation and to irrigate their crops chose not to act after the first spills. "We felt exasperated, powerless, and we didn´t think anyone would listen," he says. "We´ve since found out that, by gosh, if you raise enough hell, somebody´s going to listen."

When residents of the primarily Hispanic community finally began to raise that hell in 1994, the EPA offered a grant to the farmers to hire outside consultants to answer their questions. Rodriguez and several of his neighbors formed the Summitville Technical Assistance Group (TAG) to administer that grant and to provide the government with community input on the consequences of those toxic spills.

Rodriguez, 72, had retired to the San Luis Valley after a career of developing community programs for the National Institute of Mental Health. "He was the driving force behind getting the people of his community to the table to state their case, and to stick with it," says Cathy Carlson, director of NWF´s Rocky Mountain Natural Resource Center in Colorado.

The EPA had initially come to the area in 1992 with the intention of cleaning up the mine´s cyanide leach pit reservoir, but found a more enduring problem at Summitville: The toxic soil at the site was leaching heavy metals and other substances into the river. The agency turned the cleanup job over to Colorado´s public health officials, who initially proposed downgrading the water quality in the river from Class I (which means fish live there) to Class II (which means fish may or may not live there).

In proposing the downgrade, state authorities argued that the Alamosa River never had native fish and that the fish found there were the result of stocking efforts. They also argued that the river´s original Class I designation had been a mistake. "They were basically lowering the bar of what they had to clean it up to," says TAG member Sara Jones.

In response to the state´s "no-fish" claim, TAG members collected 80 testimonials from local citizens who had caught native trout in the Alamosa River, including a photo of a priest showing off his prize catch. Core samples, collected by federal authorities from sediment at the bottom of a reservoir on the river, showed evidence of fish dating back for years. So TAG members initiated a series of meetings with state and federal officials. "They didn´t wait for the bureaucrats to call them to the table," says Colorado State Senator Ginette Dennis. "They called the bureaucrats."

TAG members worried that if the river was downgraded, a thorough reclamation of the site would be put off forever. "This was such a painful issue for everyone involved," says Aimee Boulanger, a TAG member who also serves as the Southwest circuit rider for the Mineral Policy Center. "But Ignacio had this way of taking the most charged moment in a meeting and diffusing it."

The state backed down from its no-native-fish claim, but it has not yet initiated a full reclamation of the Summitville site. TAG members, meanwhile, have been lobbying Colorado legislators to strengthen mining regulations. "They want to make sure the hard lessons they learned aren´t quickly forgotten," says Carlson.

"I don´t believe we are being unreasonable," adds Rodriguez. "Current mining laws don´t speak of reclamation standards. And that´s outrageous."

California writer Michael Tennesen traveled to Colorado for this article.

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