San Juan County businesses report few effects from mine spill

James Fenton The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Weeks after 3 million gallons of heavy metals-laden toxic waste from the Gold King Mine in Colorado traveled down the Animas and San Juan rivers, many business leaders in San Juan County say the local economy dodged a bullet — more or less.

Raymond Johnston, owner of the Float 'N Fish Fly Shop and Guide Service at Navajo Dam, said that aside from an uptick in phone calls from people asking about conditions at the Quality Waters section of the San Juan, his business remained fairly steady.

"I couldn't really tell any difference, but I did have quite a few phone calls," Johnston said. "Mostly calls from people back east who had guide trips planned, and they were really freaked out. It didn't affect us financially, but there was a lot of concern."

Johnson, a fourth-generation Aztec resident, said he has seen incidents like the Gold King Mine spill before.

"This is the third time in my lifetime," he said of such river-pollution events. "The other two times, it wasn't any big tailings. But, you know, Aztec has been drinking polluted Durango sewage for 100 years, so we're used to something."

But just three miles downstream on the San Juan River, Larry Johnson tells a different story.

Johnson's Soaring Eagle Lodge — which is the only private riverfront lodge on the San Juan River and offers lodging, meals, guide services, fly fishing instruction, float trips and private river access for its clients — took a sizeable hit.

That was not so much from the pollution, but, as Johnson explained, from the perception of pollution.

"It's ironic, (the water in the river) is the clearest I've ever seen it right now," Johnson said after getting back from giving a fishing guide tour for charity on Friday. "No, we haven't been harmed by the spill, I told people. We're conservationists, not environmentalists. We're stewards of the river, and we were disheartened by the (mine spill)."

Johnson said he gave a geography lesson instead of booking reservations during many of the calls he fielded.

The mine spill entered the Animas River near Silverton, Colo., and traveled downstream into New Mexico before entering the San Juan River. The confluence of the Animas and the San Juan rivers is about 30 miles west of the Soaring Eagle, as Johnson said he told many callers.

He said a conservation group posted a photo of the Quality Waters on social media with the words "river" and "death." Johnson said he tried to get the photo taken down, but all he could get was a small retraction. The photo, he said, remains up.

"For us, the people that call us, we get a chance to convince them, but how many didn't call us?" he said.

Some corporate clients who had made reservations to fly fish with Johnson cancelled, citing concerns over the safety of the river in light of the pollution. But no amount of correcting that misinformation did him any good, he said.

The cancellation represented a sizeable booking during his busiest, most profitable season.

"Just like that, a $20,000 October booking — gone," Johnson said.

Johnson said he figures he has lost another $3,000 or $4,000 unsuccessfully trying to convince his customers that the river in his area was untouched by the mine waste.

Audra Winters of the Farmington Chamber of Commerce said her organization was expecting an increase in phone calls because of the spill, but that bump did not materialize.

Tonya Stinson, executive director of the Farmington Convention and Visitors Bureau, emphasized that Navajo Dam and nearby waters — as well as scheduled events in the area — were not affected by the mine waste.

"The situation in the Animas River is heartbreaking, and it is our hope that it will be addressed and cleaned up quickly," Stinson said in an Aug. 11 press release. "However, Navajo Lake State Park and the San Juan River — until it meets with the Animas River west of Farmington — have not been impacted at all by the recent spill. End of summer events and activities are moving full steam ahead, and we welcome all visitors to the area."

D'rese Sutherland at Sutherland Farms in Aztec said that the agribusiness struggled to irrigate all of its 80 acres of crops after the spill occurred.

"We didn't have any contamination, which is a good thing," Sutherland said. "We shut (nearby) Stacey (irrigation) Ditch before (the mine spill) got to Cedar Hill. We did have an impact since it was hot and dry. We couldn't water everything."

Sutherland paid to have a third-party test the ditch water before using it again. Once the water was cleared, extra attention and moisture were applied to the farm's 10 acres of green chile. From now until early October is the harvest season for that crop. Sutherland Farms prizes its chiles and celebrates the iconic state fruit with a chile festival Sept. 19-20.

"So far, we have got good chiles, but we don't yet know how many plants were affected," Sutherland said. "We're just now getting into our season. It's going to take us a while to know for sure. We just won't know until we get into harvesting whether yields will be what we hoped for."

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621 and Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.