Packrafter Documents Toxic Sludge Released in Animas River

When the Animas River turned neon orange a few days ago, Steve “Doom” Fassbinder was there, camera in hand.

Nathan Shoutis paddling the Animas River after the EPA accidentally released 3 million+ pounds of toxic sludge when they punctured a dam at a mine near Silverton.
Nathan Shoutis paddling the Animas River after the EPA accidentally released 3 million+ gallons of toxic sludge when they punctured a dam at a mine near Silverton. Photo by Steve Fassbinder.

When Steve Fassbinder started packrafting a half dozen years ago, he learned the ropes, rapids and paddle techniques on the Animas River in Colorado. “It’s the lifeblood of Durango, and it’s where I fell in love with boating,” says the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Ambassador. It’s also where more than three million gallons of bright orange, toxic sludge recently discolored the river for days.

Fassbinder was at work at Alpacka Rafts on August 11th when he heard the bad news; the Environmental Protection Agency had accidentally punctured a dam at a mine near Silverton, flushing the river with water laced with lead, arsenic and other chemicals. “When I first heard about it I thought, ‘this has got to be a mistake… maybe it won’t be that bad,’” Fassbinder says. “But I did some research and realized it was probably going to be worse than what they were projecting. Any type of disaster like that is.”

So Fassbinder took action. He immediately called up a packrafting buddy, Nathan Shoutis, and the two athletes decided to document the damage. “We didn’t get to town that night in time to take photos, but the next morning the sludge was still there,” Fassbinder says. “It was there for several days afterwards, slowly diluting as it went through town.” And Fassbinder and Shoutis got photos of it. In fact, they bought a Tyvek painter’s suit, a painter’s mask and chemical safety goggles that Shoutis wore on the river.

In an Outside Online article published on August 12, Shoutis explains, they bought the outfit “…to bring the message through clearer. Since the photo got out [in the Guardian], Steve and I have talked about calling this character HazMan. He’s like the recreationalist of a future when we might have to wear that kind of safety gear, depending on how we manage our environment.”

According to Fassbinder, the goal was to raise peoples’ awareness of these mines and the problems they cause. “Mining is very heavily a part of the history of Durango and Silverton and the Southwest in general,” Fassbinder says. “The railroad that connects Silverton to Durango is a huge part of the tourism-based economy. They still use the original mining train. People don’t realize that the history is really toxic. There are thousands of old mines tucked away where you can’t see them. That’s where our current poisons come from; they are always trickling in the water in small amounts.”

And the problem isn’t going to go away, Fassbinder says: “The mines are going to fill up with toxic water again. It happened before in the 70s when a worse spill killed all the fish; it could happen again tomorrow or in 20 years. A spill like this really puts things on the radar. Although it’s a great disaster for all downriver users, it can actually raise awareness that possibly wasn’t there before. We have the ability to steer current mining and fracking policies that affect our communities, and hopefully leave a less toxic legacy.” 

Read another interview with Fassbinder and Shoutis on Outside Online.