Unsure of the economic losses the “stigma” of the Gold King Mine spill will have on businesses and property owners, an environmental litigation firm held a discussion Friday about the rights and remedies for affected interests.
Because the Environmental Protection Agency set off an estimated 3 million gallons of contaminated mine runoff while trying to improve conditions at the mine, financially impacted parties can apply for reimbursements.
What complicates an already arduous application process is trying to gauge the spill’s long-term economic impact.
Some fear the frenzy of images broadcast around the world when the Animas River turned a sickly orange for more than 12 hours could have an effect for years to come.
“Stigma is the perception of the public, even after fixing the problem,” said Tom Alleman, an attorney at Dallas-based Dykema Cox Smith. “The Animas had brand damage.”
Alleman told the crowd of about 20 people Friday at the DoubleTree Hotel that the state of Colorado does allow individuals to file claims for compensation for stigma damages, but those kinds of situations aren’t common and can be subjective.
He said the law lists stigma damage as an event that is not “reputationally enhancing,” and in the case of the Gold King Mine spill, that might be easier to prove.
Jack Llewellyn, executive director at the Durango Chamber of Commerce, said it’s too early to tell the long-term effect the spill will have on the city’s tourism industry, but there is no denying the hit river-related businesses took in the immediate aftermath of the blowout.
“We definitely saw an impact, and it directly affected the river-rafting industry. It was like shutting down Main Street at Christmas time,” Llewellyn said, referencing the fact that August is a critical revenue month for summer tourism businesses.
Llewellyn added that just the other day, a woman bringing 20 senior citizens to the area called ahead to ask if the water was safe to drink, and it’s that skepticism he fears might influence other visitors to choose a different destination when making vacation plans.
Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Owner Al Harper said the train suffered some cancellations at first, but ridership rebounded rather quickly. Most of the railroad’s projected 183,000 riders come from outside Durango.
He’s more concerned about how stakeholders of the mining network north of Silverton will implement a wastewater-treatment plan.
And that brings in yet another layer of “stigma” in connection to the Gold King Mine spill: a Superfund listing, which is an EPA program that cleans up hazardous waste sites.
Since the spill, there has been considerable pushback from Silverton residents who believe visitors will fear and avoid the small tourism town if it is designated a “Superfund” site and prefer to explore other options.
However, those in favor of the Superfund argue the stigma of a town that refuses to clean up once and for all a history of unregulated mining regulations that have tainted the Animas for decades is far worse.
Harper, who also owns a hotel in Silverton, said residents of the town may be more open to the Superfund designation if the EPA draws clear lines of where the boundary extends.
“Let’s face it, the city limits of Silverton have not been polluting the river,” he said. “We need to make clear the mining area is a Superfund; Silverton is not.”