On a late June afternoon this summer, Dylan Burton from Washington stepped out onto the banks of the Animas River in Durango's Santa Rita Park riding a rush of adrenaline. He described the experience as beautiful and “fantastic in every way possible.”
A year ago, and the riverfront looked different. It was shut down by the county government after the Environmental Protection Agency accidentally spilled wastewater 50 miles upstream. The 3 million gallons of orange-yellow wastewater fouled rivers in three states and the Navajo Nation, stemming from work at the historic Gold King Mine deep in the San Juan Mountains.
The river was off limits to everybody for eight days, and cities and farmers scrambled to turn off water intake valves.
A federal criminal investigation into the spill is now underway, and local governments and businesses are frustrated with the slow pace of compensation from the EPA one year later.
Matt Wilson, owner and operator of 4 Corners Whitewater, estimates he lost about $30,000 in revenue last year because of the spill. His was one of about six Colorado rafting companies affected from canceled trips and no customers for over a week.
“So after that it was hard to kind of reboot and get people back on the water after all that publicity,” Wilson said.
Wilson is now one of 68 individuals and businesses across Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and the Navajo Nation that filled out financial claims with the EPA.
Samples show water quality on the Animas River has returned to pre-spill conditions and the 2016 summer rafting season has been strong. But Wilson and others are still waiting to hear back on their claims.
Durango City Council member Dean Brookie said his city's government is in another holding pattern. It spent over $440,000 responding to the spill. The tab includes everything from water-quality monitoring to “personnel that we assigned to the clean-up effort.”
He said Durango’s budget is strong without those funds, but other smaller communities may not have as much in reserves.
Laura Jenkins, an EPA spokeswoman, said the agency continues to work with local governments on reimbursing costs.
“We’re limited by what the regulations allow us to reimburse communities for,” said Jenkins. “They have to meet the requirements that are in the statutes."
The EPA says laws like the Clean Water Act govern what is reimbursable for communities. Overall it has spent $29 million responding to the spill, with $3.7 million going to local governments to reimburse expenses like overtime pay and local water quality monitoring.
There are other issues that aren’t covered, and in some places like New Mexico, talks have broken down.
“It was just continual failed efforts,” said Tania Maestas, Deputy Attorney General for Civil Affairs in the New Mexico Attorney General’s office.
New Mexico sued the EPA this spring and the state has received $1.64 million from the EPA so far. The agency has made another $5.67 million available in unallocated funds to the state, but Maestas said it only covers a fraction of $130 million in estimated damages. The lawsuit covers everything from water quality monitoring to payment to local businesses for their losses.
“It’s our experience that the EPA met all these requests with either challenges, resistance or delays,” Maestas said about local business owners frustrated with the claims process
Maestas said other states could follow New Mexico’s path to court.
The Navajo Nation may be at the front of that line. Last August, it hired the California law firm Hueston Hennigan LLP to represent its claims. Attorney John Hueston said the firm has pursued multiple avenues resulting in some payment, but at the one year mark he said the window for cooperation is closing and the time for legal action is quickly approaching.
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