EPA's yellow-river spill has local businesses gasping for air

Colorado businesses are suffering after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) dumped a toxic brew of mining chemicals into a popular river in Colorado, with a watchdog group in the state blaming the federal regulator's lack of transparency for the disaster.

The EPA released between one million and three million gallons of dark-yellow wastewater into the Animas River in early August, in an incident that Administrator Gina McCarthy said has the agency "upset."

Agricultural users have shut off water intakes along the river and law officials closed the river to recreational users.

Local fishing businesses are feeling the effects.

"Business has been affected," Tom Knopick, co-owner of Duranglers Flies and Supplies in Durango, Colorado, told American Media Institute. "Because of the massive amount of doom and gloom in the media, things have dropped off."

The portion of the Animas hit by the spill of yellow chemicals is a popular site for rainbows and brown trout. Fly fishing season lasts from late spring to mid-autumn in the area, and the closure of the river comes in the peak of the vacation season.

"People are not fishing there right now because the river is closed," Mike Murphy, a hunting and fishing outfitter with 35 years of experience, told A.M.I. -- but he added that the worst of the catastrophe seems to have passed. "I talked to a guy who didn't know the river was closed the other day, and he had caught some fish [in the Animus]."

Although McCarthy has promised a "transparent" response, one Denver-based group says the agency has been anything but transparent to date.

“Right now our biggest concern is the transparency and availability of the EPA and state officials to inform the public of what’s going on,” Michael J. Sandoval, an Energy Policy Analyst at the Independence Institute, said. “We need to know what happened? What levels of toxicity are in the river? That needs to be front and center.”

After that, Sandoval said, the EPA needs to conduct an in-depth analysis of the impact to businesses, farmers and those who live in the area and downstream.

“So far, that’s what we think is lacking, some officials in southern Colorado and Durango have indicated there wasn’t enough warning about the event and the EPA admitted as much. They’re not being forthcoming in a timely fashion to shut off irrigation ditches and so forth. That’s the most disappointing thing, after the spill itself.”

Some local fishermen say that kind of clarity might help mitigate the economic strain on the community. Ralph Blanchard, general manager at Animas Valley Anglers, notes that most of the yellow chemicals have washed through the river in the week since the spill. His business has also managed to relocate customers to other areas unaffected by the spill.

The challenge is convincing tourists the worst is over.

"If you look at the river right now, it's not yellow," Knopick said. "It was yellow for a day or two, but unfortunately those pictures of the yellow river are what people are still seeing all over the country."

The EPA triggered a spill last week while using heavy machinery to investigate pollutants at the Gold King Mine, north of Silverton. The pollutants have flowed south about 65 miles to Durango, near the southeast corner of the state. The Animas flows into Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border as well as the Grand Canyon area.

According to the EPA, the wastewater contained zinc, iron, copper and other heavy metals. 

McCarthy toured the area Wednesday and said the river appeared to be "restoring itself." But the Independence Institute's Sandoval said the EPA should provide regular updates on what’s happening on the ground.

“The EPA has people in-house, the information should be coming 24/7," Sandoval said. "They need to then follow up with studies regarding the containments, next spring’s river runoff will stir up those contaminants. This is going to be an ongoing story for a while.”

Sandoval said the institute will continue to follow the story as it unfolds.

“We’re going to be keeping an eye on this, if not in the next few days, before the month is out we’re going to look at the necessary agency’s responses and depending on those responses we’ll pull out or transparency tools.”