“This can’t be the United States”: An excerpt from River of Lost Souls — Jonathan Thompson @jonnypeace

Below is an excerpt from Jonathan Thompson’s beautiful book about the people and the historic economies of the Four Corners area and the resultant water pollution, health problems, and climate effects left over from the extractive industries that flourished there. The book centers around the Gold King Mine spill in August 2015 and that is the context Thompson uses to explain the area’s history. He even introduces you to his grandmother and that’s quite a story in itself. River of Lost Souls is an important book. The reader ends up smarter about dealing with folks that disregard environmental issues in the name of economic gain.

From RiverOfLostSouls.com (Jonathan P. Thompson):

Jonathan’s Note: Among the many things in the path of Florence, the tropical storm that battered North Carolina in September, were coal ash dumps. A lot of folks don’t know what those are, or why they are cause for concern. So I’m running this long excerpt from River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster to shine some light on the issue of coal combustion waste.

To drive west out of Farmington is to travel through the borderland, where the northeastern edge of the Navajo Nation melds with the non-Indian world. It’s a cultural and economic mishmash. Here’s a sex store next to a plumbing supply shop across the highway from a sprawling automobile burial ground not far from a Mennonite church. Justalaundry, Zia Liquors, Family Dollar, and numerous little booths or shacks where Diné sell kneel down bread or tamales or piñon nuts to passersby. And the “quick cash” joints that have sprouted like weeds in Gallup, Farmington, and other reservation border towns, preying on the poor, the desperate, and the “unbanked” with their thousand-percent interest loans. It’s just an update of the exploitative pawn shops of yore. “It’s a border town, and tribes around it constitute economic colonies,” John Redhouse, who grew up in Farmington, told me, adding that things haven’t improved that much since the 1970s.

Trailers perched on cinder blocks, tires on a roof. An old man in a recliner, sipping a tumbler of warm whiskey, selling his junk. Down in the lush Jewett Valley a sign pointing to an old metal building reads: “RABBITS GOATS CHICKS AVON AT DOUBLEWIDE.” Just up the road, the Original Sweetmeat Inc., aka “Mutton Lover’s Heaven,” a slaughterhouse and butcher shop, sits alongside the highway and the Shumway Arroyo.

A few miles north looms the San Juan Generating Station, built in 1973 in the arroyo. Eight miles away, on the Navajo side of the river, sits the older, larger Four Corners Power Plant.

The Original Sweetmeats is owned and run by Raymond “Squeak” Hunt, a tall, gruff man prone to muttering inscrutable aphorisms, who deals mostly with mutton, or sheep (as opposed to lamb), and sells to a mostly Diné clientele. “You may think I’m one hard, mean son-of-a-bitch,” Hunt told me when I first met him in 2002, as he unloaded a trailer full of sheep, bound for slaughter. “But it hurts me every time I kill one of these animals.”

I wasn’t there for the sheep, though. I was visiting because Hunt is surely the most stubborn—if unlikely—thorn in the corporate side of Public Service Company of New Mexico, the operators of San Juan Generating Station and the supplier of electricity to the entire state. That doesn’t make him unique; hundreds of activists have agitated against the air pollution from the two coal plants’ smokestacks over the decades. But Hunt was one of the most ferocious fighters against a rarely noticed form of pollution spilling out of the plants: the slag, ash, and dust left over from burning coal, otherwise known as coal combustion waste.

Hunt has lived here, along the banks of the Shumway Arroyo, for much of his life. Prior to 1973 the upper reaches of the Shumway contained water only after rains. Once the arroyo reaches the San Juan River Valley near Hunt’s place, however, irrigation return and groundwater resulted in the arroyo’s transformation to a perennial stream. The stream was a source for both domestic and livestock water for early settlers of the Jewett Valley, including Hunt’s family.

When construction began on the large, mine-mouth, coal-burning power plant a few miles upstream alongside the arroyo, the arroyo changed. Coal power plants require vast amounts of water to function, and when SJGS went on-line in 1973, the plant dumped its wastewater and just about everything else into the Shumway. From that time on, the previously dry arroyo became a perennial stream from the plant to the river. Downstream users in Waterflow, in the meantime, continued to drink out of wells fed by the arroyo’s flows and their livestock kept drinking straight out of the stream.

Like the slightly larger Four Corners Power Plant, which was constructed a decade earlier, San Juan Generating Station’s smokestacks were subject to virtually no regulation. During its first decades of operation, Four Corners became notorious for the black plume of smoke—hundreds of tons of sulfur dioxide and fly ash each day—that it sent into the region’s previously crystal clear skies. One account says that one plant produced more smog than New York City. With the addition of SJGS, the air quality in the region deteriorated, vistas were cut short by smog, and the one thing that remained visible from far away were the plumes emitted by the stacks.

It did not take long for citizen groups from around the region to protest the deterioration in the quality of their air. General citizen pressure and lawsuits forced the 1977 Clean Air Act to include a policy preventing the degradation of air quality. In 1978, San Juan Generating Station installed controls to reduce smokestack emissions and Four Corners followed in 1980. Air pollution from the plants was significantly reduced. Other pollution was not.

When coal is burned the carbon reacts with oxygen to form carbon dioxide. But coal is a lot more than just carbon. It’s got sulfur in it, which becomes sulfur dioxide during combustion, the main cause of acid rain. It contains a host of other elements, most notably arsenic, mercury, and selenium, some of which waft from the stack as smoke and particulates. Most end up as solid waste of one form or another. Each year, power plants in the United States collectively kick out enough of this stuff to fill a train of coal cars stretching from Manhattan to Los Angeles and back three times. It’s stored in lagoons next to power plants, buried in old coal mines, and sometimes piled up in the open. It is the largest waste stream of most power plants, and a study by the Environmental Protection Agency found that people exposed to it had a much higher than average risk of getting cancer.

“Anybody who knows anything about coal ash chemistry knows that when you burn coal, what you have leftover is dramatically different from what you had originally,” Jeff Stant, a geologist with the Clean Air Task Force, told me back in 2002. Coal ash can contain seventeen metals. Some, like mercury or arsenic, are already toxic, others become more so during combustion.

Because every pound of pollution kept out of the air ends up in the solid waste stream, the pollution control methods in the stacks only made the problem on the ground worse. The solid waste consists of fine and dusty fly ash; a gravelly, gray material called bottom ash; and the relatively benign glassy clinkers or boiler slag. The stack scrubbers that pull sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide out of the smoke create perhaps the most malignant material, called scrubber sludge. All of that was typically piled up near the plant, where it could blow into the air, or get washed into an arroyo, or leach into the ground. In San Juan Generating Station’s case, the stuff was dumped right into or near Shumway Arroyo—an echo of the hardrock mining tailings that had been similarly dumped for decades one hundred miles upstream.

In the early 1980s, people who lived along the Shumway Arroyo and drank from wells began getting sick. Hunt suffered from muscle spasms, lost sixty pounds, and had a cornucopia of other problems. “I looked like a POW after World War II,” he said. His wife and kids got sick; his neighbors, too.

Though Hunt’s illness was never definitively traced to a specific cause, he and other activists are pretty sure some of the stuff in coal combustion waste made it into his water. Around the time Hunt got sick, researchers found extraordinarily high levels of selenium—which tends to be highly concentrated in coal combustion waste—in the Shumway Arroyo. His symptoms match those of selenium poisoning. His illness may have also come from ingesting too much lead, cadmium, arsenic, mercury, or sulfates, all of which are commonly concentrated in coal combustion waste.

Whatever the poison, it soon became clear that the water was tainted. Those who were sick sued the Public Service Company of New Mexico, which operates the plant; the company never admitted fault, but ultimately settled with the affected families. It also tightened up its waste disposal, becoming one of the first power plants in the nation to go to a zero discharge permit, which means it can’t release any water onto the land. After a lot of legal wrangling, Hunt settled, too.

Hunt, however, remains convinced that the power plant continues to sully the water in the arroyo. He says that water leaks from retention ponds, coal-washing, and dust-control spraying, and even if it’s clean, it picks up and remobilizes contaminants in the sediments of the arroyo, left by the dumping in the 1970s and ’80s. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, 1,400 of Hunt’s sheep, all of which had drunk from the Shumway Arroyo, got sick and died or had to be killed. Hunt blamed Public Service Company of New Mexico, or PNM, the state’s biggest electricity provider. The utility said negligence on Hunt’s part killed the sheep, with the help of minerals occurring naturally in the arroyo and the water. The utility and Hunt have been at loggerheads for years in very public ways. On their way home from work every day, the power plant’s employees have no choice but to see a giant billboard erected by Hunt on his property, bashing both PNM and New Mexico’s environmental regulators. A smaller sign above the big billboard reads: “WAKE UP you bunch of NUTS we ALL live DOWNSTREAM.”

Hunt’s fight isn’t limited to his own situation, though. He’s also worked to shine a light on the coal combustion waste issue in general. Despite the magnitude of the waste stream, and its potentially deleterious effects on human and environmental health, coal combustion waste disposal is regulated much like normal landfills are. The EPA has for decades worked on new rules, implementing some, letting others fall by the wayside.

“I hope you have a cast-iron stomach,” said Hunt as we walked over to the little stand by the road where a Diné couple was selling, along with jewelry, bowls of extremely hot chili and kneel down bread. The lamb sandwiches inside looked good at first, but after a tour of the slaughterhouse and witnessing a sheep get stunned, decapitated, and dressed, I opted for the chili. We sat in a shady spot next to the parking lot and watched a steady stream of customers go into the butcher shop and haul out racks of lamb and mutton, chops, and something a Diné man called b’chee, little strips of meat or fat wrapped up in sheep intestines that Hunt’s wife prepared.

After eating, as the afternoon clouds moved in along with a stiff breeze, we climbed into Hunt’s truck and he drove us to the south side of the river, toward Four Corners Power Plant. We followed a dirt road skirting Morgan Lake, in the shadow of the soot-stained smokestacks of the plant. Each year about nine billion gallons of water are brought up from the San Juan River to form this reservoir, then it’s circulated through the plant to cool the massive generators and for other purposes. The hot water is discharged back into the reservoir, so Lake Morgan is warm and steamy, even in winter, making it a popular, if surreal, windsurfing and fishing spot.

On their way home from work every day, the power plant’s employees have no choice but to see a giant billboard erected by Hunt on his property, bashing both PNM and New Mexico’s environmental regulators. A smaller sign above the big billboard reads: “WAKE UP you bunch of NUTS we ALL live DOWNSTREAM.” Photo credit: Jonathan Thompson

When early provisions of the 1970 Clean Air Act first were being implemented in the early 1970s, the smokestacks looming over Lake Morgan kicked out more than four thousand pounds of mercury each year, along with thousands of pounds of selenium and copper and hundreds more pounds of lead, arsenic, and cadmium, not to mention sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and other pollutants. Thanks to federal air pollution regulations, and to activists who push the government to enforce those rules, emissions have decreased considerably over the years. Now, with only two of five units still in operation, the plant puts out about 150 pounds of mercury and 520 pounds of selenium each year, along with varying quantities of other toxic metals. Most of these pollutants are then deposited in the surrounding water, on the land, and on homes. For years, rain and snow falling on Mesa Verde National Park—its backside visible from the shores of Morgan Lake—have contained some of the highest levels of mercury in the nation, and elevated levels have even been found on Molas Pass, just south of Silverton. The mercury is then taken up by bacteria in lakes and rivers, which convert it to highly toxic methylmercury, which then enters the food chain. Mercury messes with fishes’ brains, and even at relatively low concentrations can impair bird and fish reproduction and health. It’s not so good for people, either.

We continued out into the desert toward the Chaco River and the Hogback, and as we came over a rise an incongruous scene unfolded before us: a flat-topped, uniformly shaped mesa, its dusty soil gray and smooth, with eerie-looking deep-orange water pools on its surface. Nothing was growing there. I wondered if maybe it was this that I needed a strong stomach for, not the chili.

We were looking at the Four Corners Power Plant’s dump, made up of ash impoundment piles, decant water, and evaporation ponds, containing some forty years’ worth of accumulated coal combustion waste—tens of millions of tons of it—from three of the plant’s five generators. At the time, Four Corners was burning about 8.5 million tons of coal each year, some 3.3 million tons of which were leftover as coal combustion waste, dumped both here and back into the nearby mine. A trio of unlined sludge-disposal ponds sat less than five hundred yards from the Chaco River, which empties into the San Juan River a few miles away. Two miles upstream is the Hogback Outlier, a Chacoan-era pueblo. A crescent-shaped structure known as a herradura—a piece of AWUF associated with Chacoan roads—sits atop the Hogback nearby.

Darker clouds headed our way and the wind kicked up, whipping the fine, gray ash and dust off the top of the piles and into the air, reducing visibility to thirty feet or so. When the dust cleared we saw a sign stuck into the base of one of the piles. It read: “No Trash Dumping. Walk in Beauty.”

For people who worry about coal combustion waste and the way it’s regulated, this place is Exhibit A. “My first thought when I saw this,” Lisa Evans, an attorney for Earthjustice, told me, “was, this can’t be the United States.”

Like the Shumway Arroyo which runs past Hunt’s home, the Chaco River downstream from this complex of ponds and piles has contained extremely high levels of selenium, as does the groundwater beneath the ponds. When ingested, selenium can adversely affect reproduction in fish, birds, and mammals. Fish along this stretch of the San Juan River often contain elevated levels of mercury, lead, selenium, and copper. In 1992 a U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist surveyed fish downstream on the San Juan River from the Four Corners Power Plant to Mexican Hat and found that a majority of them had lesions, damaged livers, deformities, or other signs of disease. While the culprit appeared to be bacteria, the particular strains need the fish to be otherwise impaired, by contaminants, for example, in order to invade.

When I returned to Hunt’s place in 2007, he gave me the same tour. Nothing had changed, but the spokesman for the plant’s operator, Arizona Public Service, assured me that they were no longer dumping their coal ash in the piles Hunt and I toured, and that the company planned to clean up the nasty piles and ponds and replace them with lined impoundments. Since then, the piles have been covered, and the old ponds removed. Dumping continues here, but under more controlled conditions. Ash is also dumped back into the nearby coal mine, which has been owned by a Navajo Nation-owned company since the end of 2013. This alleviates some of the problems associated with dumping, but doesn’t solve all of them, critics say. Chemicals can still leach into groundwater (though it’s less likely here, where it’s so arid), and unless the ash is covered, it can still blow around in the air, settling on nearby homes.

Arizona Public Service, which is owned by Pinnacle West Capital Corporation, sells electricity to nearly 1.2 million people across Arizona. The corporation raked in over $400 million in profit in 2015. At the same time, it lobbied hard to change state rules on net metering, which determine how much the utility must compensate homeowners for electricity generated by rooftop solar panels. They’ve managed to chip away at the incentives, thus discouraging people from installing their own panels and generating a bit of their own electricity.

As we drove back around the plant, seemingly to provoke the security guards, Hunt treated me to another rhetorical geode. “It’s just like asking Patty Hearst’s mother what happened…all you get is a bunch of excuses,” he said. “These are some nasty sons-a-bitches. It’s all about profit. They don’t care about anything or anyone, they just care about their profits.” As crude as the delivery might have been, it was hard to refute the concept.

When we arrived back at Original Sweetmeats, the after-work rush was on. We hung back by the truck and watched. It was late afternoon. The cottonwoods cast long shadows on the ground. “If I’m lucky, one day I’ll die of a heart attack,” Hunt said.

After a pause, he perked up to tell me about the petroglyphs that are pecked into the sandstone cliff band that runs up and down the San Juan for miles. I looked out at the valley, sliced up by the four-lane highway and the big transmission towers, and wondered why the Pueblo people would leave such a place, and I tried to imagine what the first Diné people, coming from the North, out of the cold mountains and across the parched high desert, thought when they came upon the silty river and the trees and the willows on its banks. It must have felt like home.

Up on the desert on either side of the valley, the plants chugged on, each burning twenty thousand tons of coal per day. They’ve brought jobs and industry to a once-impoverished and undeveloped place and keep the people in faraway cities cool in the unforgiving summer heat. They each send millions of dollars of property taxes and royalties to various governments. They also spew out thousands of tons of toxic waste each year. Power is not free.

An old pickup truck pulled into the parking lot, several cages holding roosters in the back. A large man tumbled out, wearing safety glasses and a dirty jumpsuit, his face spattered with some kind of black soot: a power plant employee, selling his chickens after work.

“Five dollars for the little ones,” he told a man and wife who were inspecting the birds. Then he turned to Hunt and me and told us about how he can no longer smell anything after years at the plant, and about how his friend who lived nearby had to clean his television screen daily to wipe away the buildup of fly ash.

“I won’t make it to sixty, I can guarantee that,” he said, matter-of-factly. His wife sat in the cab of the pickup, smiling and quiet.

The haze seemed to be getting thicker in the west, the sun taking on an orange glow. Under my breath, to no one in particular, I said, “Looks like it will be a nice sunset tonight.”

Want to read the rest of the book? Get a copy of River of Lost Souls.

“(Thompson) combines science, law, metallurgy, water pollution, bar fights and the occasional murder into one of the best books written about the Southwest in years.”

Andrew Gulliford, historian and writer, in The Gulch magazine.

@EPA plans to release PFAS management plan by the end of the year

Widefield aquifer via the Colorado Water Institute.

From The Nashua Telegraph (Ken Liebeskind):

After completing its final PFAS Community Engagement event in Leavenworth, Kansas, on Sept. 5, the EPA plans to prepare its PFAS management plan and release it by the end of the year.

The first community engagement event was in Exeter in June, with follow-ups in Horsham, Pennsylvania, Colorado Springs, Colorado, Fayetteville, North Carolina and an event for tribal representatives in Spokane, Washington.

The EPA said, “The Community Engagement events and the input the agency has received from the docket for public comments have been incredibly informative and will be used, along with perspectives from the National Leadership Summit to develop a PFAS management plan for release later this year.

[…]

While the EPA says one of its actions will be to evaluate the need for a MCL for PFAS that may change its current level of 70 parts per trillion that is a health advisory…

Many environmental groups are calling for lower levels that have already been established by other states.

Fountain Creek trial: @EPA, et al. v. Colorado Springs begins

The confluence of Fountain Creek and the Arkansas River in Pueblo County — photo via the Colorado Springs Business Journal

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Robert Boczkiewic):

A trial began Wednesday to determine whether the city of Colorado Springs violated clean water laws by discharging pollutants and large-volume water flows from its storm water into Fountain Creek and other Arkansas River tributaries.

The trial is for a 2016 lawsuit by federal and state.environmental agencies against Colorado Springs. The case is central to long-standing disputes that Pueblo County and the Lower Arkansas River Valley have with the city for defiling the creek and the river.

The environmental agencies contend the city is responsible for creating a threat to public health because the stormwaters increase levels of E. coli, pesticides and other pollutants into the creek.

The agencies also contend discharge of “extraordinary high levels of sediment impairs (the creek’s) ability to sustain aquatic life, damages downstream infrastructure and communities like Pueblo, worsen flood damage (and) impairs farmers’ ability to irrigate and obtain water to which they are legally entitled under Colorado law.”

Senior Judge Richard P. Match of U.S. District Court in Denver is presiding over the trial that is expected to run at least 10 days.

The Pueblo County Board of County Commissioners and the Lower Arkansas Water Conservancy District joined the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Colorado Department of Health and Environment as plaintiffs by intervening in the case.

The district is comprised of Pueblo, Otero, Crowley, Bent and Prowers counties.

The lawsuit alleges that damage to the creek and river is caused because Colorado Springs’ stormwater system is inadequate, and for numerous years has violated clean water laws by exceeding discharge limits set in permits issued by the state for the system…

An attorney for the city, Steven Perfrement, defended the city’s efforts to operate the system, and to control discharges of pollutants and the volume of water flows. “The city has adopted programs and enforces them.”

Tiny bits of plastic permeate our world — @HighCountryNews

Graphic via 5Gyres.org

From The High Country News (Krista Langlois):

On a still dark December morning in 2015, a red Ford Ranger plastered with stickers and jammed with kayaking gear left the lights of Bozeman, Montana, and headed south on Route 191, paralleling the Gallatin River. It drove through subdivisions and farmland, past a ski resort, and finally toward the border of Yellowstone National Park, where the river’s headwaters rise. There, in one of the most intact, well-protected ecosystems in the United States, Gerrit Egnew, a University of Montana bioengineering student, pulled the truck onto a side road and parked.

The sun had just risen, its rays slanting through frosty spruce trees. The temperature was 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Egnew and his friend Kirra Paulus went through a routine they’d practiced dozens of times: dress in warm layers of wool and synthetic clothing, yank Gore-Tex dry suits over their heads, and shimmy into the neoprene spray skirts that connect them to their plastic boats. Snow crunched underfoot. Although the pair had been here just a few months earlier, the river was nearly unrecognizable in the grip of winter, banks of undercut ice narrowing its channel to less than eight feet across. Not far downstream, the blue-black water disappeared entirely beneath snow and ice.

These aren’t the kinds of conditions whitewater kayakers normally get out of bed for, but Egnew and Paulus hadn’t come for adrenaline. “I’m a middle-class white guy who gets to spend a lot of time outside, and sometimes I feel like the activities I love are selfish,” Egnew told me later. Wanting to put his kayaking skills to more altruistic purposes, he signed up to collect water samples for a Bozeman-based nonprofit called Adventure Scientists. The organization uses kayakers, skiers, climbers and other outdoor enthusiasts to gather environmental data from places too scattered, far-flung or difficult for scientists to regularly reach. One of its biggest projects revolves around a material that Egnew knows well from his years of rafting and kayaking: plastic.

More specifically, Adventure Scientists is interested in microplastics, pieces smaller than 5 millimeters in diameter. Some have broken down from larger items like disintegrating tires, toys or plastic bags. Others are shed from synthetic clothing, or come from personal hygiene products with exfoliating “microbeads.” Some can be seen with the naked eye; others are so small that they’re nearly invisible, and so light they can float on currents of air. And they are everywhere, from Arctic sea ice to city drinking water. By the time Egnew began volunteering on the Gallatin in 2015, Adventure Scientists had already collected water samples from thousands of locations around the world. Ultimately, they found microplastics in 93 percent of them.

But while the ubiquity was startling, the nature of the project meant there was little follow-through at individual sites. And while the threat that microplastics pose to the world’s oceans is well-established, there’s been comparatively little research on their impact to freshwater and inland environments. So Abby Barrows, who heads Adventure Scientists’ microplastic initiatives and is a marine researcher with College of the Atlantic, decided to investigate plastic pollution in a single, unlikely place: Montana’s Gallatin River, which flows into the Missouri and then the Mississippi. If she could identify how microplastics entered the headwaters of one of the country’s biggest watersheds, it could help shed light on how the pollutants spread from streams to rivers to the fish we eat, the water we drink, and the fields where we grow our food.

Which is why Egnew and Paulus were slowly making their way down the last ice-free section of the Gallatin in December, dunking their hands into the frigid water to fill labeled metal water bottles. As Barrows had instructed, they sampled from the left, right and center of the river, always upstream from their kayaks. They took photographs of their gear and clothing so Barrows could later make sure that no plastic bits came from the volunteers themselves. Everything was going well. Then, just before the river disappeared beneath the frozen landscape, a bottle slipped from Egnew’s hand. He pulled his sprayskirt and dove down to rescue it. At the river’s edge, his polyethylene-molded boat scraped ashore.

IF FUTURE SCIENTISTS digging through layers of rock and sediment come upon the geologic strata being set down today, they’ll find a colorful stripe of earth atop the plain rock and dirt of the pre-industrial era. Since plastics first became widespread in the mid-20th century, more than 9 billion tons have been manufactured, most of which has been thrown away.

Once they’re buried, scientists have no reason to believe that these Crayola-colored bits and bobs will ever fully biodegrade. Instead of calling our current geologic epoch the Anthropocene, or Age of Humans, scientists who study plastics sometimes refer to it as the Plastocene. Geologists even recognize a type of rock — “plastiglomerate” — that’s made from plastic and sediment that have naturally fused together.

So perhaps it should come as no surprise that when Egnew and Paulus turned in their water bottles, together with more than 700 additional samples collected from 72 sites along the Gallatin over a two-year period, the samples were flush with tiny pieces of plastic. In peer-reviewed research soon to be published, Barrows found that 57 percent of the samples contained microplastics, with an average of 1.2 pieces per liter of water. If that doesn’t sound like much, consider that the Gallatin flows at a rate of 6,000 cubic feet of water per second at its peak, and this seemingly clear mountain river begins to look like a conveyor belt for tiny pieces of trash.

Microplastics have been found in numerous other Western water bodies, from alpine tarns to the giant reservoir of Lake Mead. But the upper Gallatin is one of the most pristine watersheds in the Lower 48 — a playground for fly fishermen, whitewater boaters, mountain bikers and hikers. Much of the river flows through protected public lands. So where’s the plastic coming from?

One source could be the outdoor recreation industry. Mixed in with the organic material floating in the river water, Barrows finds shreds of synthetic rubber like that used in mountain bike tires, the neoprene used in wetsuits, and the PVA used in fishing line. It’s intriguing, she says, “to have the materials from your study directly point to the land uses in a particular area.”

Still, outdoor recreation isn’t wholly to blame. As the Gallatin flows downstream — past Bozeman, into the Missouri River, and through cities, wildlife refuges and Native American reservations — plastics enter the watershed from a panoply of sources, including our own homes.

TO THE EXTENT THAT most of us think about microplastics, we’re probably familiar with microbeads, the tiny plastic scrubbers that became common in face washes and toothpastes in the late 1990s. Following a surge in public awareness about the dangers microbeads pose when eaten by fish and other wildlife, Congress voted to ban them in personal care products beginning in 2017. But Danielle Garneau, an associate professor of environmental science at SUNY Plattsburgh who studies microplastics, says that microbeads never made up a large percentage of the microplastics she and her colleagues found in freshwater. A bigger culprit, she says, are plastic fibers. Head to any coffee shop in Bozeman on a wintry Saturday morning, and the problem is in plain sight. Fleece pullovers. Polypropylene leggings. Polyester hats. Globally, production of synthetic fibers — long, thin strands of plastics spun into threads much as wool is spun into yarn — more than doubled from 2000 to 2017. Today, roughly 58 percent of clothing is woven with them, including many technical outdoor fabrics. While these fabrics excel at keeping us warm and dry in the elements, they shed every time they’re washed: up to 250,000 plastic fibers per jacket, per wash cycle.

That means every time one of Bozeman’s 45,000 residents throws their synthetic base layers or fleece jacket in the wash after a sweaty day of skiing or kayaking, they’re releasing microfibers into the city’s sewer system. From there, the plastic-laced water travels to Bozeman’s state-of-the-art wastewater treatment plant, where it passes through a variety of filters and tanks before being discharged into the East Gallatin River. Although Bozeman’s plant meets some of the highest environmental standards in the United States, Garneau says wastewater treatment plants (like freshwater treatment plants) simply aren’t designed to pick up particulates as tiny as microplastics. A 2016 study she co-authored found that municipal wastewater plants release up to 23 billion plastic particles into U.S. waterways every day — a major point source of freshwater plastic pollution.

Even plastics that are captured by treatment plants often end up back in the environment. They settle into the semi-solid residue, or sludge, produced by plants, which is then repurposed as fertilizer and sold or given to farmers. Scientists from the Norwegian Institute for Water Research and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences estimate that because of such fertilizers, more plastics wind up in Europe and North America’s agricultural soils each year than currently exist in all the world’s oceans. Inevitably, untreated irrigation runoff sends some of them back into our rivers.

Without additional research on the Gallatin-Missouri watershed, no one can say for sure how microplastic concentrations fluctuate as the rivers flow downstream, or to what extent they’ve contaminated wild and human communities. Still, studies from elsewhere in the country paint the basic picture. Some microplastics are flushed out to sea, where they contribute to marine plastic pollution. Scientists estimate that some 80 percent of plastic in the world’s oceans originates from inland sources.

Other particles sink to the river bottom, where they may be eaten by benthic invertebrates like freshwater mussels. Still others bob along in the water column and are gobbled up by fish or birds. In the Northeast’s Lake Champlain, Garneau has found an average of 22.93 microplastic particles in the guts of each bird she surveyed, 6.49 in fish, and .61 in invertebrates. Off the coast of California, University of Toronto ecotoxicologist Chelsea Rochman found microplastics in 25 percent of fish and 33 percent of shellfish caught locally and sold for human consumption. In both studies, the majority of particles were fibers.

Some of these microplastics are excreted, while others stay embedded in animals’ guts and other organs that Americans rarely eat, except in the case of shellfish. But the chemicals that plastics are made with, including carcinogens like brominated flame retardants, can leach off plastics and be absorbed into muscles and tissues — parts of the fish bound for our dinner plates.

DINING ON CONTAMINATED FISH AND SHELLFISH is just one way humans ingest plastics. Researchers have also found microplastics in craft beer, honey, salt and — in research headed by SUNY Fredonia chemist Sherri Mason — in 81 percent of tap water and 93 percent of bottled water from around the globe, including the United States.

Because the study of microplastics is so nascent, there’s been relatively little research on how eating them impacts human health, and many scientists are wary of being alarmist. “We’re still asking basic questions,” says Timothy Hoellein, an associate professor of biology at Loyola University Chicago who worked on the Gallatin River research. “A big part of microplastics research is still trying to understand where it is, where it’s coming from and where it’s going.”

Laboratory studies, however, are beginning to reveal how eating plastics could affect animal behavior and physiology. The results have been mixed. Some studies show no changes, while others demonstrate repercussions ranging from liver toxicity to tissue scarring to a reduced appetite, which could affect wild creatures’ survival rates. The differing results might be due to the fact that vastly different types of chemical compounds are lumped together as “plastics.”

“Microplastics is a name we use for a lot of different types of contaminants,” Rochman explains. “There are different shapes, different sizes, different suites of chemicals. When we’re talking about pesticides, we never just say, ‘What’s the impact of pesticides?’ We say, ‘What’s the impact of chlorinated pesticides?’ or ‘What’s the impact of DDT?’ But with microplastics, that conversation just isn’t being had yet.”

Students in Rochman’s lab are trying to tease out how, say, eating polyurethane foam impacts wildlife differently from eating polyester fibers. She hopes the results may eventually help regulate the production of hazardous plastics the way similar research helped regulate pesticides. “We’re not going to get rid of plastic,” Rochman says. “It’s a really important material. But we can think about using safer types.” That could mean banning certain chemical compounds from plastic manufacturing, or perhaps engineering more environmentally friendly plant-derived plastics.

Like other plastic scientists I spoke with, Rochman is surprisingly optimistic. Instead of feeling discouraged by the pervasiveness of plastics, they believe the visibility of the problem makes it more likely to be tackled: Unlike climate change, plastic pollution is hard to deny. Environmental campaigns aimed at reducing plastic waste are encouraging some consumers to use steel straws, cloth shopping bags, and washing machine filters that capture microfibers, while the bipartisan cooperation on banning microbeads offers hope that other types of harmful plastics can also one day be regulated. California banned single-use plastic bags in 2016, and Seattle recently banned single-use drinking straws and plastic cutlery from being distributed within city limits.

Other Western states, however, are moving away from regulation. Idaho and Arizona both recently passed legislation banning plastic bag bans, which means cities like Bisbee, Arizona, that independently voted to stop using plastic bags may have to drop their bans or risk losing state funding.

Yet landlocked Western state are hardly immune from the effects of plastic pollution, especially in rural areas where people are more likely to catch and eat wild fish. Keeping plastics out of rivers like the Gallatin could help keep microplastics out of humans’ and animals’ food supplies, both in the intermountain West and further downstream.

The outdoor recreation industry may only be responsible for a fraction of the plastics entering Western watersheds, but as the number of mountain bikers, hikers and anglers toting plastic into wild places grows, enthusiasts like Gerrit Egnew are starting to reckon with the footprint they leave behind. Like nearly everyone else in this country, Egnew depends on plastics. After he dove beneath the icy water of the Gallatin to retrieve his water sample on that December morning, the plastic-derived gaskets and fabrics in his dry suit protected him from hypothermia. That’s why he’s happy to have contributed to research identifying the outdoor recreation’s role in plastic pollution.

“Outdoor industries are often touted as solutions to more extractive types of industry,” Egnew says. “I think that’s probably true. But without knowing the impact of the outdoor industry ecologically, we can’t really compare them.” Quantifying that impact, he adds, is the first step toward mitigating it.

Krista Langlois is a correspondent with High Country News. She writes from Durango, Colorado. Follow @cestmoiLanglois

#AnimasRiver: Wildfire (#416fire) runoff has severely impacted fish populations #ActOnClimate

Debris flow from 416 Fire. Photo credit: Twitter #416Fire hash tag

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo) via The Cortez Journal:

A fish count in the Animas River on Tuesday found populations have been drastically affected by deadly runoff from the 416 Fire burn scar.

Fish kills because of ash and dirt washing into the river started in mid-July, but a massive rain event around July 17 likely killed most of the fish in the waterway, wildlife officials said at the time.

The dirty runoff lowers the oxygen content in water, suffocating fish, which have been further stressed by abnormally low flows and high water temperatures.

For the first time since the 416 Fire runoff events, wildlife managers with Colorado Parks and Wildlife conducted a fish survey to better understand the extent of the fish kill.

Usually, CPW will use an electrofishing device from a raft to stun fish to survey two 1,000-foot sections of the Animas River: from Durango High School to the Ninth Street Bridge and from Cundiff Park to the High Bridge.

This year, low flows forced wildlife managers to use an electrofishing device from the banks and from in the river.

Jim White, an aquatic biologist for CPW, said in a normal year, a survey will find somewhere around 40 brown trout and 40 rainbow trout in the stretch from Cundiff Park to the High Bridge.

This year, CPW found one brown trout and one rainbow trout in that stretch and no molted sculpin, a small native species of fish that’s a key food source for trout.

In the stretch of river between Durango High School and the Ninth Street Bridge, CPW found four brown trout and two rainbow trout, as well as some molted sculpin, bluehead suckers and speckled dace.

“Normally, we’d catch 10 times that,” White said.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife fish count Animas River August 2018: Photo credit: Joe Lewandnowski

From Neon Orange To Chocolate Brown: The West’s Unluckiest River Takes A Beating — KUNC

Screen shot of Animas River debris flow July 2018 aftermath of 416 Fire (CBS Denver).

From KUNC (Luke Runyon):

The mine spill temporarily closed down recreation in the river and forced farmers to shut off irrigation to their crops. But life in the river? It didn’t change much. The bugs and fish survived and showed no signs of short-term harm. The fish had been living with heavy mineralization of the water for decades.

Crisis averted — until this year…

The Animas began the summer with record low water because of drought and a warm winter. That primed the nearby mountains for a big wildfire. The 416 Fire ended up burning about 55,000 acres around the drainage basin for Hermosa Creek, a tributary of the Animas. Now when it rains over the burn area, a thick sludge washes into the river.

Horn says official surveys haven’t been conducted, but it’s likely the first few ash-laden runoff events killed 100 percent of the fish in a 30 mile stretch of the river.

“You could literally see the fish coming to the banks gasping for air. It physically smothered their gills and their ability to breathe,” Horn says. “So there it was, it didn’t look as bad. It came from a, you could argue, natural source and did way more damage.”

Many western rivers are stressed. They’re pressured by drought, pollution, overuse by cities and farmers and runoff from wildfires. The Animas acts as the perfect poster child.

“It certainly is unlucky,” says Scott Roberts, a researcher with the Mountain Studies Institute, a non profit research group based in nearby Silverton. “It’s unlucky now. And it’s been unlucky for throughout time really.”

The river’s facing problems that show themselves, Roberts says, like a vibrant orange smear or a chocolate brown sludge. Or like earlier this summer when the river’s water all but disappeared within Durango’s city limits, recording its record lowest flow in 107 years of data.

But there are many others that don’t draw intense public attention. Before the Gold King Mine spill, and even now, the river receives acidic water laden with heavy metals from the region’s numerous abandoned mines. Adding insult to injury, in July 2018 a truck carrying waste material from the mine site crashed into Cement Creek, another Animas tributary.

“It’s being stressed by drought, being stressed by warmer temperatures. It’s being stressed by runoff from wildfires, being stressed by elevated metal concentrations, being stressed by bacteria, by nutrients,” he says.

Roberts points to studies that showed samples of the river’s water with high levels of bacteria commonly found in humans, likely leached from underground septic tanks.

“I don’t think that the problems that are plaguing the Animas today are unique to the Animas,” says Trout Unlimited’s Ty Churchwell, based in Durango…

In fact, Churchwell says, all these issues are increasingly common throughout the West. Drought, ash-laden runoff and mine pollution are often the norm in western watersheds. The Animas has just experienced the extremes of all three in a short period of time…

But it could be another five to ten years before the Animas is back to its former self, according to water quality specialist Barb Horn.

#AnimasRiver: The @EPA releases results of three year water quality study #GoldKingMine

A “get well soon” balloon floats in the contaminated waters of the Animas River flowing through Durango on Monday afternoon August 10, 2015 — photo The Durango Herald, Shane Benjamin

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

The study looked at 200 river-water samples and almost 200 sediment samples, as well as more than 100 private wells from Durango to Silverton, testing for 13 different heavy metals and other possible contaminants, the health department said.

Some findings, according to San Juan Basin Public Health:

Water quality, except in Cement Creek, is better than the minimum standards set to protect aquatic life and human uses.

Additional sampling performed as part of this study revealed that natural variability in river flows produces occasional “spikes” in certain metals that may have been missed in less-frequent sampling.

Sediment in the Animas River, including beach sediment at six popular Durango recreation sites, poses no risk to human health if common-sense precautions are followed.

About one-quarter of Animas Valley drinking water wells had naturally-occurring bacteria present, and all wells should receive filtration or treatment.

About 5 percent of Animas Valley wells had more serious contamination from heavy metals, nitrates or other forms of bacteria. Heavy metal contamination in these wells arises from the natural geology of the Animas Valley aquifer.