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Colorado Businesses Struggle As Toxic Waste Flows Through Animas River


Three million gallons of mining waste has turned the Animas River in Colorado the color of mustard. The toxic water has now fouled the San Juan River further downstream in New Mexico and Utah. The affected areas have been closed. That's tough news for many small businesses that rely on the rivers for their livelihood. And Roger Zalneraitis has been hearing a lot of anxiety about that. He's the executive director of the La Plata County Economic Development Alliance in Durango, Colo.

ROGER ZALNERAITIS: It's been a shock for everybody here, as you can imagine. There's been a very strong emotional response from our community. Businesses have been affected in various ways, some not at all. Some have closed, clearly. If your livelihood is on the river, you are temporarily shut down right now. And hopefully, they will be receiving some assistance and can weather this through and get open to take advantage of the remainder of the summer season.

BLOCK: You're talking about businesses that rely on the river such as rafting groups, things like that.

ZALNERAITIS: There's rafting, but it goes beyond just rafting and angling. There are businesses that rely on the water in order to produce product. It can be farmers. It can be nurseries. There are real estate agents that have lost some commissions as a result too. So we're learning as we go along about who depends on the river and how they depend on the river.

BLOCK: So you're learning that the community is more reliant on the Animas River than maybe you knew before.

ZALNERAITIS: Yes. I mean, when a photographer calls you and says his business is being affected, that's not something you would've guessed. With the river the way it is, maybe going out there to do a shoot by the river is not something somebody wants to do anymore, so they lose a contract and lose a sale in the middle of the summer.

BLOCK: Are you getting clear information from local, federal authorities?

ZALNERAITIS: We are seeking clarity because this is an evolving process and a rapidly evolving process. So I don't think anybody is trying to be obscure or opaque about things. We're in a discovery process just like everybody else, like scientists are with the river right now about what's really going on. And as we get good information, we will disperse that good information, both us and our other community partners.

BLOCK: The governor of Colorado, John Hickenlooper, was in Durango today. He was talking about reimbursing small businesses affected by this spill. Do you think you'll see that compensation?

ZALNERAITIS: So we have some local compensation that may be available for businesses affected. I think there will be part of the emergency fund that the governor issued - I think some of that money may be available for businesses as well. And I think the federal agencies are going to be contributing too. It already seems like some interest from the EPA to help out, and there may be some other agencies that can assist as well.

BLOCK: What about long-term effects of this, Mr. Zalneraitis? Do you worry about sort of the long-term taint that goes well beyond this immediate spill?

ZALNERAITIS: When I think about the long-term effects, I wonder what the economic ramifications are going to be beyond these first couple weeks, well water that may be affected down the road. Or it may not be. There may be issues in the following spring with the snow runoff that may cause some issues with the river again. There may be issues related to farming and ranching that go on beyond this.

Somewhere in the distant future, five years, 10 years from now, the Animas River is going to be back to its old self. One thing that people have talked about is, 30 or 35 years ago, there was a spill of similar magnitude. So it will get back to normal, at least as good of shape as it was in. And I imagine there's going to be renewed efforts to clean the mines up in San Juan County which will probably result in the river being in even better shape than it was before 'cause that's what happened last time. We went from a river that was in OK shape to good shape. Maybe now we're going to go from good to great.

BLOCK: But that's going to take some time.

ZALNERAITIS: All things that go from good to great take time.

BLOCK: Mr. Zalneraitis, thanks for talking with us.

ZALNERAITIS: Thank you, Melissa. Take care.

BLOCK: That's Roger Zalneraitis. He's the executive director of the La Plata County Economic Development Alliance in Durango, Colo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.