- Associated Press - Thursday, October 1, 2015

DENVER (AP) - Southwestern Colorado residents told Congress on Thursday that the Gold King Mine blowout and other mines spilling acid waste into waterways could cause serious long-term damage to their tourism economy, but they disagreed on whether a federal Superfund designation would help or hurt.

A rafting company owner, a county commissioner and a chamber of commerce official told the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee that they don’t yet know the full economic impact of the spill, but it has been devastating so far, scaring away visitors and triggering layoffs at travel-related businesses.

An Environmental Protection Agency-led cleanup crew inadvertently triggered the release of 3 million gallons of tainted wastewater from the inactive Gold King Mine north of Silverton on Aug. 5. The water turned the Animas River a mustard-yellow color as it flowed through Durango, Colorado, eventually reaching New Mexico and Utah.

La Plata County Commissioner Bradford Blake said outdoor recreation companies, farms, greenhouses and other businesses that rely on the river and its water suffered immediate losses ranging from $8,600 to $100,000 each. “Clearly, we do not know yet what the long-term impact of the Gold King spill, and the publicity generated by it, might be,” he said.

Andy Corra, who owns a sporting goods store and rafting company in Durango, said 2015 had been a good year for him before the spill.

“And then boom! The river was closed,” he said. “We didn’t have any time to plan. We didn’t have any time to adjust.”

Corra called the Animas the lifeblood of the region and said it will take a massive effort to clean up the scores of inactive mines spilling millions of gallons of waste into the watershed year-round.

He said an EPA designation as a Superfund site is the only obvious solution. Superfund status would make the area eligible for extensive federal funds for a comprehensive cleanup. Other proposals, such as reforming the 1872 mining act and a law that would encourages third-party volunteer groups to clean up abandoned mines, are good steps but don’t go far enough, Corra said.

DeAnne Gallegos, executive director of the Silverton Chamber of Commerce, said Superfund designation carries a stigma that can discourage tourism and investment. “Is it the magic bullet? I don’t know,” she said.

Gallegos also expressed doubts about the EPA, saying Silverton residents had to fight to get the agency to hold a community meeting about the spill.

The EPA has long been interested in a Superfund designation but encountered local opposition.

EPA spokeswoman Melissa Harrison said Thursday that agency officials have been talking with local officials about the Superfund process since the Gold King blowout but that Gov. John Hickenlooper hasn’t requested the designation. Hickenlooper’s spokeswoman, Kathy Green, said he has no current plans to request the designation but would consider it if it had broad local support.

Republican U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, whose district includes Silverton and Durango, warned against a Superfund designation and said other options should be considered. “Superfund status does bring with it a stigma, and right or wrong, often that perception is reality,” he told the committee.

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Follow Dan Elliott at http://twitter.com/DanElliottAP

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