It is now the iconic photo of a mine cleanup gone wrong – a photo that has been seen by countless people and one that defines the enormity of an environmental disaster.
Since the photo of three kayakers floating in a deep mustard-yellow Animas River on Thursday near Bakers Bridge was published in The Durango Herald, it has been shared around the world via television, social media and print publications, including Newsweek, The Guardian, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune – and the list goes on.
The image evoked questions from many viewers: What were those kayakers thinking? Why would they put their health at risk by floating in polluted mine water?
Dan Steaves said he and his two companions – Eric Parker and David Farkas – had no idea the water was the result of a massive toxic mine spill from Silverton until Herald photographer Jerry McBride approached them on the riverbank.
It’s not uncommon for the water to turn brown during high run-off in the spring and fall, Steaves said. The color did seem a little more “in-depth” than usual, he said, “otherwise, we didn’t think anything of it.”
Steaves wouldn’t reveal where he and his friends put in on the river, but it was far enough north that they were in the muck long before most Durangoans even knew about the incident at Gold King Mine.
The photo was taken about 10:30 a.m. Thursday, 4½ hours before the La Plata County sheriff ordered everyone off the river and closed it because of its potential as a public-health hazard. It remains closed.
Steaves said he was horrified to learn what happened, and since then has been considering possible health effects. It took the EPA until Sunday to release preliminary water samples from the spill.
Steaves said he wore earplugs and a dry suit, but his head and hands were exposed to the water.
“It’s disturbing,” he said. “The three of us obviously have some sort of health concerns down the road. If we develop some sort of nasty health decline because of this unknowingly five, 10, 15 years down the road, is the EPA going to own it then?
“The three of us are definitely anxiously awaiting exactly what was in the river, and then we can move forward,” he said. “Humans can’t deal with uncertainty very well. Humans can deal with bad news, because then we can move forward to the next step.”
And what about having the photo seen around the world?
He’d prefer it to be for another reason.
“Look at how many people it has affected in our town,” Steaves said. “It’s definitely a tragedy that it had to happen to us.”