Local writer, Jonathan Thompson, recently released the book “River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster” published by Torrey House Press.
The Independent asked Thompson a few questions about his debut book.
Note: This interview has been edited for clarity.
Q: What’s your background? Why are you the right person to write a book on the Gold King Mine spill?
A: I grew up here in Durango, and my family has been here for several generations. Journalistically, since the beginning of my journalism career I focused on this area, particularly Silverton. The whole mining industry was fascinating to me back then, so I started writing about it back then and I’ve kind of continued to look at it ever since. And I happen to be the first one to do it.
What made you decide to write the book?
After the Gold King Mine spill happened, there was tons of coverage, international coverage. Because of the way the news cycle works, all the stories pretty much lacked a lot of the context. I felt like you couldn’t really understand the event and what happened around it without the context. There's geographical context, there’s historical context, there’s scientific context and it’s all so big that it became clear to me -- it’s actually when I was writing a cover story for High Country News and it went, like five times too long that I realized maybe I should just write a book.
Can you explain how you researched the book?
Some of it I already researched because I drew a lot from work that I have done before from various capacities. A lot of the on the ground reporting is stuff that I had done before. But I also did a lot more of that, interviewing people who I knew were important figures. But then beyond that, tons of reading of old newspapers. I would say that old newspapers, historic newspapers, were my main way to kind of get a sense of what the issues were, and then I could go in and find, like old USGS geological papers and read those and pioneer accounts and stuff like that for the basic history. For more recent stuff, more recent USGS papers and scientific studies, because there was a lot done, for the mining stuff for example, a lot of that was done in the last 20 years.
What’s the main thesis?
I wouldn’t say I have one thesis, I think I have a lot of them. One of the main themes is this idea that this area for 10,000 years or more has drawn people to it because it’s an amazing region. It’s both beautiful, it’s got a good climate, and it’s got natural resources in abundance. Those people have come and made it their home and they tended to defile their home. There’s this pattern and a cycle, so I would hope that maybe the Gold Kind spill will inspire people to try to break that cycle and continue to make it their home and make it a better place.
If there’s one thing people should understand about the spill, what would it be?
I would say that it is Gold King mine spills are happening all the time. They’re less dramatic, they’re less colorful, since that was really the trademark of that spill, but that there’s abandoned mines leaking stuff, the same stuff that once a week, the same amount of material, the same toxicity is going into the river. That’s just one of the many things. There’s power plants and gas fields and all kinds of other sources of pollution that are essentially doing the same thing. This was not an isolated event, and it’s not an extraordinary event either.
What can students take away from the book?
I think students could get a lot from the book itself. Which is, I think they can get a grounding in the place where they are. If you’re a Fort Lewis College student and you might want to live here, I would say the best thing the book does is it shows you the history and the stories, both good and bad, of the place that they live. And when they float down the river they can think about these things and think about the history, and maybe that’ll make it a richer place to live. And hopefully it emphasizes the importance of knowing the place you live. Certainly the students have great resources up there with the geology department and all the different departments to study this place, so they should take advantage of it.