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Unintended Consequences

A letter from the editor of our February 2016 issue.

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Of the books I’ve read over the past couple of years, two stand out for the impact they had on my thinking about the world in which we live. One is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, a devastating treatise on race in America; the other is Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, which recounts the five previous extinctions the world has endured and examines, in harrowing detail, the current environmental crisis human beings are inflicting upon Earth. Coates’ book is worthy of a column of its own, but it was The Sixth Extinction I was reminded of while recently reading senior staff writer Robert Sanchez’s “Downstream”, which focuses on Colorado’s most recent environmental calamity. The story of the Gold King Mine spill was well-documented by both local and national media outlets. But it was after the initial barrage of stories, which were often accompanied by images of the Animas River’s unnaturally yellow-orange water, that Sanchez and I spent a few hours on a late August afternoon discussing the disaster. We began pulling up maps, and it was Sanchez who noticed that the Animas River connects to the San Juan River, a waterway that cuts directly through the Navajo Nation in New Mexico.

Here in Colorado, residents were (justifiably) concerned about the safety of the water, the broad environmental ramifications, and how the spill might affect this recreation-rich sliver of the state. And, of course, the accident became politicized in the most predictable of ways: Liberals fretted about the damage to the environment and opined that stronger regulations and oversight could prevent future accidents; conservatives railed against the Environmental Protection Agency and the reach of the federal government. None of this, however, prepared Sanchez for what he would find when he arrived at the Navajo reservation this past fall. “Downstream” eloquently recounts what he experienced and how the Navajo struggled in the months immediately after the Gold King spill. “There’s an extreme distrust of anything related to the federal government, and there’s historical support for that on the reservation,” Sanchez says. “Regardless of whether the EPA says the Animas and San Juan rivers are back to normal, the Navajo worry about the long-term implications of the mine spill and what might happen to their land in the future.”

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Which brings me back to The Sixth Extinction: The Gold King disaster, which took place in Colorado and affected wide swaths of the American Southwest, was a reminder that our actions vis-à-vis the environment often have unintended consequences. A Mylar balloon we decide to release into the air for some celebratory purpose may end up on a plot of pristine mountain wilderness and alter the landscape forever. That plastic six-pack holder could end up strangling a duck after washing down a storm drain and into the South Platte River. And, yes, even after the Yellow Water—as the Navajo call it—has disappeared, members of the tribe are still struggling with the fallout. “The Yellow Water has devastated us,” Victoria Gutierrez, a Navajo environmentalist, says in Sanchez’s story. “It’s still trying to ruin us.”

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