4Corners Riversports owner Andy Corra stood along the banks of the Animas River, almost two weeks after a toxic mining spill critically contaminated its waters, and announced to more than 100 river enthusiasts: “Durango is back.”
To prove the Animas River is open and ready for business, Corra and other local river-rafting companies Tuesday organized a show of support at the 32nd Street put-in. Corra said although the incident was devastating to the community, he hoped the events of the past month would at least create political pressure that would initiate real change and cleanup on the river.
Just before 5:30 p.m., a large gathering of kayakers, boaters, rafters and inner-tubers prepared to float down the Animas, many for the first time since the spill.
Durango resident Sam Glaser, along with his two daughters, showed some reservations before casting off.
“It’s the sort of choice we have to make,” he said. “It makes me a little nervous ... but we’re exposed to all kinds of stuff elsewhere. I figure an hour-and-a-half on the river is probably worth the risk.”
Rafting companies rebounding
Earlier Tuesday, businesses affected by the river’s eight-day closure said the river celebration is part of moving forward.
“It’s important to come together as a community and be there while the river heals,” Jadea Braddy, office manager at Mild to Wild Rafting and Jeep Trails, said. “It’s also really important to show the world the river isn’t out there with a bunch of sludge and orange waste.”
Levels of contamination have been deemed “below what would be a concern for human health” by state and federal health officials, and recreational businesses are eager to rehabilitate the public perception of the river that dominated news headlines across the country after an estimated 3 million gallons of mining wastewater spilled from the Gold King Mine outside Silverton on Aug. 5.
For most outdoor adventure companies that rely on summer tourism, June and July are generally catch-up months from the slow spring season, while the income accrued in August is considered financially crucial for the business’ overall revenue.
Braddy said the eight days the Animas River was closed took a “big economic toll” on the rafting and jeep tour company, and she hopes the Environmental Protection Agency, which is responsible for the spill, will reimburse lost incomes. Rafting companies have yet to quantify how loss of revenue and uncertainty about long-term environmental impacts will effect their businesses, but they said tourism is slowly rebounding.
“There has definitely been an increase in calls,” Braddy said. “We’re taking people back on the river, and we’re excited to be out there.”
On Tuesday evening, river enthusiasts were just happy to lazily float down through the heart of Durango or follow the procession along the river trail. The overwhelming majority of the crowd was not worried about contaminated waters, instead cheering the fact the river is open for use.
“I think it’s important to remember there’s mines all over the region that have been leaking for a really long time,” Luis Benitez, who serves as the outdoor recreation industry director for the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade, said. “I believe in the state health officials and the EPA. I don’t think they’d put anyone in harm’s way.”
But not everyone is convinced the river is safe for recreational activity. A few people at the 32nd Street put-in said it’s not so easy to turn a blind eye to the orange sediment that contains heavy metals or that an estimated 864,000 gallons of wastewater continues to leak into the Animas River each day.
Resident Amanda Champany, who said she used to swim in the river before the spill, decided she needed a little more time before getting back into water.
“There’s still sludge,” she said. “I know there are heavy metals, and some can penetrate the skin. They talk a lot about the water quality, but not about the sludge.”
However, river guides are adamant health officials would not have opened the Animas for use if the water posed a serious toxic risk to humans, reminding participants to wash with soap if they come into contact with orange sediment or discolored standing water.
Troy McLoed, who has owned Southwest Jeep and Raft for two years, takes a more cautious tone. He was unable to attend Tuesday’s event because nearly all of his dozen or so employees quit, deciding to find new work or travel before the start of school.
However, he told The Durango Herald earlier in the day he is worried the spill will have a negative effect on tourism in the long run, similar to the 2002 Missionary Ridge Fire that burned about 73,000 acres of forest land.
“Now that the river’s turned back on, it’s not like the phone automatically starts ringing again,” he said. “(And) people may decide not to come next year because they’re still worried about the water.”