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Financial claims add up after Gold King Mine spill

More than 30 individuals, businesses seek damages from EPA
Kayakers Dan Steaves, Eric Parker and David Farkas talk with a group as they get out of the polluted Animas River north of Durango on Aug. 6 after a blowout at the Gold King Mine north of Silverton. Around three dozen claims for compensation from the spill have been submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency so far.

Financial damage claims for those affected by the Aug. 5 Gold King Mine blowout eclipsed $1.3 million just two months after the Environmental Protection Agency triggered the release of 3 million gallons of mine wastewater down the Animas River.

According to a Freedom of Information Act submitted by The Durango Herald on Oct. 13 and received Nov. 10, more than 30 individuals and business owners filed Form 95, the claim process for financial reimbursements from economic loss caused by wrongful U.S. government actions. The combined claims total about $1.3 million in damages, but more than half of that is being requested by two property owners.

As expected, the hardest hit are rafting companies and their employees, who were forced to shut down for nine days as the orange plume containing heavy metals passed through Durango. Though all names of companies and individuals – as well as addresses – were redacted from the forms, the basis of the claims shows the plight of those affected.

“Even when the river opened back up, we could do little to no business because our employees needed to find new work or move out of the area,” wrote one rafting company that is seeking $15,000 in damages.

A number of rafting guides also filed Form 95 to make up for loss of income, ranging from $408 to $3,420. One guide, asking for a $1,500 reimbursement, said the mine spill forced him to move from Durango and lose several week’s worth of pay. When prompted to list a witness to the event, the rafter wrote, “Everyone in Durango, CO.”

The largest claims were submitted by property owners whose wells were affected by the orange sludge and farmers forced to close irrigation ditches. Seeking the highest to-date amount, a landowner is petitioning for $550,000 to build a new well and cover the cost of the stigma attached to the spill.

“I am dependent on groundwater to shower/bathe, consume and for my animals to consume,” the property owner wrote. “My well has been contaminated to the point it is no longer usable. I would like to be compensated for (the stigma) as well as the new well.”

Another landowner was more vague about the effects of the spill and its long-term damages, but the person still requested $400,000 from the EPA for “unknown (damages) to our water well, irrigation water and pasture and unknown future medical problems.”

Many individuals who operate vacation rental properties also saw a loss of revenue as a result of customers canceling after images of an orange river dominated national and international media headlines.

“After news broke about the river being polluted, we instantly received a cancellation from a family that was coming ... to fish on the Animas River,” one person wrote. “They specifically site (sic) they were canceling due to pollution of the river. The reservation was for 5 nights for a total of $1,185.00.”

As part of a claims package, one applicant included a letter received from an upcoming guest asking for a $4,398 refund after deciding to cancel their trip because they were “alarmed by the recent events” of the mine wastewater release.

“Our vacation was to be centered on fun river activities and events,” they wrote. “I have decided that a fun time in Colorado is not worth risking the health of my family. Concerns for drinking water safety, unnecessary exposure to toxic material and the loss of entertainment opportunities has forced us to cancel our vacation and make other plans.”

One out-of-towner sought a reimbursement of $1,221.60 for three airline tickets to Durango because the city “was an unsafe place to go under the current situation of the spill.”

Those who believe they have been financially damaged by the EPA-triggered event still have until Aug. 5, 2017, to file a Form 95. Some business owners, such as Mild to Wild’s Alex Mickel, said they’re waiting to see the long-term impact of the Gold King Mine blowout.

“We just wanted to take the time to understand the complete picture,” Mickel said. “We haven’t finished our own analysis, but we were certainly down in that period. We just need to take a little time to see what a $3 million negative advertising campaign (referring to heightened media coverage) against the Animas River has on our business.”

Local governments are also in the hunt for costs associated with the Gold King Mine spill. Recently, La Plata County was awarded almost $200,000 and is still seeking an additional $126,000 for expenditures. Other entities, including the city of Durango, the Navajo Nation, Southern Ute Tribe, Silverton and San Juan County, are pursuing similar settlements.

An EPA spokesperson said the agency has not reimbursed any affected parties to date. Officials must first finish all reports and investigations related to the spill before reviewing any financial claims.

jromeo@durangoherald.com

EPA Form 95 Loss Claims (PDF)

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