The Gold King Mine spill brought an abrupt end to Durango’s 2015 rafting season and temporarily shut down some ranching operations along the Animas River.
But the environmental mishap wasn’t all bad news for La Plata County businesses; in fact, several companies, including motels and restaurants, profited as government agencies opened their pocketbooks to help manage the disaster.
In the two months after the spill, La Plata County government spent $115,000 on goods and services related to the spill, much of which went to local businesses, according to receipts obtained through an open records request.
Several other agencies spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, including the Environmental Protection Agency, which has authorized $23.3 million in spending as of July 15, including reimbursement to local communities but not including payroll or travel expenses. The agency, which triggered the spill, was not able to provide a detailed accounting of its expenses in time for this story, but county expenses provide a snapshot of how local businesses profited during the spill.
The county has received reimbursement for some expenses and is seeking compensation for others.
The county’s first expense occurred on Aug. 6, 2015 – the same day the mustard-yellow water snaked its way through the county – to purchase a case of copy paper for $27.65 from Office Depot. The county made several return trips that month to Office Depot, purchasing $2,020 worth of supplies, including six easels, 12 easel pads, sticky notes, ink cartridges, a wall clock and much more. The county is seeking reimbursement from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
The county also purchased hundreds of meals for government employees. They were fed at at least a dozen different restaurants, including Macho’s, J. Bo’s, Carvers, Doughworks, Steamworks, Raider Ridge Café, Serious Texas Bar-B-Q, Rice Monkeys and Hot Tomatoes Café, to name a few. Many of the purchases fed dozens of people, including tabs for $305 at Domino’s Pizza, $517 at Serious Texas Bar-B-Q, $325 at Raider Ridge Café, $400 at Schlotsky’s, and $1,309 for a “thank you lunch” for city of Durango and La Plata County employees catered by Zia Taqueria. The county is seeking reimbursement for the food, including the thank you lunch, from the EPA.
Dozens of snacks and meals were purchased from area grocery stores, including Albertsons, Walmart, City Market and Nature’s Oasis. Receipts suggest some less-than-healthy eating habits, including large quantities of Lays potato chips, candy, doughnuts and soda pop.
The county also picked up several hotel bills, but it appears most employees sought reimbursement from their individual agencies rather than the county, because the county paid only $4,533 to house eight people, according to the open records request. The bills range from $79 a night at the Grand Imperial Hotel in Silverton to $720 for six nights at the Super 8 in Durango.
Several other businesses profited as a result of the Gold King Mine blowout, including:
Fast Signs, which charged about $1,125 to make vinyl signs used to close the river.Best Cleaning, which billed $2,522 to clean the La Plata County Fairgrounds after the EPA used it as a headquarters.Durango Party Rental, which charged $746 for a temporary room divider.Durango Joe’s, which charged $45.75 to serve 45 people coffee.But the company that profited the most is Wright Water Engineers, which raked in about $70,000 to provide consulting and water sampling on behalf of the county.
Overall, charges appear to be fairly well spread out between businesses, without a preference for specific vendors, restaurants or grocery stores.
Assistant County Manager Joanne Spina said that is a good thing, but it’s likely a result of luck, preference and necessity rather than policy. Most people don’t want to eat the same meal every day, she noted, so multiple restaurants were visited.
“This was an emergency situation, so I think those decisions were made in the moment by the folks who were needing to acquire whatever the goods or services were,” Spina said.
She couldn’t personally speak to individual purchases, including what happened to certain supplies, such as the wall clock, after the EPA left. But she assumes it’s still in the county’s possession.
“I don’t know what happened to that clock,” she said. “I would not want to venture a guess.”