How do we grieve the death of a river?


“Our people blocked the road. When the troops arrive, we will face them.” 

– Ailton Krenak, Krenaki People, Brazil

This eighteen months saw three of the largest mine tailings pond disasters in history.  Although they have occurred far from northern Minnesota’s pristine waters, we may want to take heed as we look at a dozen or more mining projects, on top of what is already there, abandoned or otherwise. These stories, like many, do not make headlines. They are in remote communities, far from the media and the din of our cars, cans and lifestyle.   Aside from public policy questions, mining safety and economic liability concerns, there is an underlying moral issue we face here:  the death of a river. As I interviewed Ailton Krenak, this became apparent.

he people in southestern Brazilian call the river Waatuh or Grandfather. “We sing to the river, we baptize the children in this river, we eat from this river, the river is our life,”  That’s what Ailton Krenak, winner of the  Onassis International Prize, and a leader of the Indigenous and forest movement in Brazil, told me as I sat with him and he told me of the mine waste disaster. I wanted to cry. How do you express condolences for a river, for a life, to a man to whom the river is the center of the life of his people? That is a question we must ask ourselves.

November 2015’s Brazilian collapse of two dams at a mine on the Rio Doco River sent a toxic sludge over villages, and changed the geography of a world.  The dam collapse cut off drinking water for a quarter of a million people and saturated waterways downstream with dense orange sediment. As the LA Times would report, “Nine people were killed, 19 … listed as missing and 500 people were displaced from their homes when the dams burst.”

The sheer volume of water and mining sludge disgorged by the dams across nearly three hundred miles is staggering: the equivalent of 25,000 Olympic swimming pools or the volume carried by about 187 oil tankers. The Brazilians compare the damage to the BP oil disaster, and the water has moved into the ocean – right into the nesting area for endangered sea turtles, and a delicate ecosystem. The mine, owned by Australian based BHP Billiton, the largest mining company in the world, (and the one which just sold a 60-year-old coal strip mine to the Navajo Nation in 2013) is projecting some clean up. 

Renowned Brazilian documentary photographer Sebastiao Salgado, whose foundation has been active in efforts to protect the Doce River, toured the area and submitted a $27 billion clean-up proposal to the government.  “Everything died. Now the river is a sterile canal filled with mud,” Salgado told reporters. When the mining company wanted to come back, Ailton Krenak told me,  “we blocked the road.”

They didn’t get the memo.

Last August saw a similarly disastrous failure in a tailings pond feeding into the Animas River in Southern Colorado. The amazing thing about this dam failure was that it was caused by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In this case, the EPA was looking into an aging mine tailing pond at the Gold King Mine near Silverton Colorado. The mine has been abandoned and is one of an astonishing 22,000 abandoned mines in the state meaning, unfortunately, there could be more to come. It seems that on August 5, EPA personnel along with workers for Environmental Restoration LLC (a  Missouri based  contractor ) caused the release of toxic wastewater when attempting to add a tap to the tailing pond for the mine. The workers accidentally destroyed the dam which held the pond back, and three million gallons of cadmium, arsenic and lead laced mine waste water and tailings gushed into (oddly named ) Cement Creek, a tributary to the Animas River. The EPA was criticized for not warning Colorado and New Mexico until the day after the waste water spilled. The Navajo Nation, directly downstream, also did not receive the memo.

The Navajo Nation had a bit of time to prepare for the onslaught, in that terrifying way that you know your life is about to change dramatically. By August 7, the waste reached Aztec, New Mexico. The next day it reached Farmington, a major Navajo city, before the orange flood moved  into the San Juan River.

Reporters noted, “The heavy metals appeared to be settling to the bottom of the river because largely, they are insoluble unless the entire river becomes very acidic.”

The EPA took responsibility for the incident, and Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper declared the affected area a disaster zone. The Navajo nation  sought disaster relief since this was a major source of water for Navajo livestock and agriculture, many of which did not survive the spill as the Dine irrigation system had to be cut off. Acidic water continued to spill at a rate of 500–700 US gallons a minute, while remediation efforts were underway. The Navajo nation is expected to sue the EPA.

Sadly, through a Freedom of Information Act request, the Associated Press found files indicating that government officials “knew of ‘blowout’ risk for tainted water at mine”. Perhaps one of the most tragic sidebars of this story is that the Gold King Mine itself was abandoned in 1923. And, prior to the spill the Upper Animas water basin was already devoid of fish due to previous acid mine drainage. The life of the river had already been killed.

The Third Disaster: Almost exactly a year before, the Mount Polley Mine disaster spilled 6.3 million gallons of mine waste from the Imperial Metals mine into the Frazier River, in northern British Columbia. While the people along the Fraser River were anticipating the largest sockeye salmon return in recent history, instead they found the largest mine waste spill in Canadian history.

As Canadian journalists report, “..a year later, the mine is running again under a restricted permit. While both the company and the B.C. government attempt to reassure the communities, there is no trust.”

Questions remain. Initial water bans warned people not to drink or bathe. Quesnel Lake rose two and a half inches after the spill and its temperature increased by 2.5 degrees. The long-term effects of contaminants found in samples are unknown, and it is not clear who will be responsible for continued monitoring, either on site or financially. The clean up was estimated at $200 million and even before the cause of the breach was known.

Native communities in other parts of the province began to speak out against mining operations on their lands. In this case, sovereign rights of the Secwepemc First Nation (Shuswap First Nation), were significantly impacted. “The spill’s ramifications rippled to Imperial’s Red Chris mine in northern BC, where elders from the Tahltan Central Council (with whom the company previously had a positive working relationship) established a blockade to voice their concerns about the potential of a similar incident in their territories,” First Peoples Worldwide stated in their Corporate Monitor post in September 2015. In order to continue operations, the company was forced to sign an agreement that would allow third-party inspection of the operation under the band’s auspices.

As Canadian based First People’s worldwide reports; the Secwepemc took what some might feel was a bold step. It invoked its rights as a sovereign First Nation of Canada and evicted Imperial Metals from its land. It also announced that it now had mining policies of its own, and would enforce from hereafter. “One thing I want to make perfectly clear is this policy isn’t a wish-list,” said Jacinda Mack, when the policies were announced. Mack serves as the council coordinator for the Secwepemc Nation. “This is Indigenous law.”

The Secwepemc Nation has invoked the United Nations Declaration of Indigenous Rights to define the Native peoples’ right to “determine and develop priorities and strategies for the development or use of their lands or territories and other resources.” It also defines its right to close the mine and evict mining companies as it sees fit. The Fair Mining Collective, an international technical assistance organization, is working with the First Nations in developing policies which are now available on line.

“Indigenous rights can be defined as “flowing from Indigenous peoples’ historic and sacred relationship with their territories,” explains the Fair Mining Collaborative.  “These rights are derived from Indigenous laws, cultural practices, customs, and forms of governance. The mining economy of northern British Columbia continues – along with the frackingm pipelines and a host of extreme energy proposals which seem to be undertaken out of sight and mind, except if you live there.

Half a world away in New Zealand, the question of the life of a river has taken on a new legal meaning. In 2012, the Whanganui River became a legal entity and was given the same status as a person. In an agreement between the Maori and the Crown, the  river is given legal status under the name Te Awa Tupua – two guardians, one from the Crown and one from a Whanganui River, Iwi (a Maori community) will be given the role of protecting the river.

“Today’s agreement which recognizes the status of the river as Te Awa Tupua (an integrated, living whole) and the inextricable relationship of Iwi with the river is a major step towards the resolution of the historical grievances of Whanganui Iwi and is important nationally,” the spokesman for the Whanganui Iwi explained.

Does the Animas River, the Frazier River, or the Rio Doce have similar rights or standing? And should the St. Louis River, or Gichigami Ziibi (River which runs to the Sea), – in the heart of the proposed Polymet and other mining projects impact zone, have similar status? In the end, we must all ask who gets to determine what is alive, and who takes responsibility to protect that life.