Toxic Spill in Colorado River Could Impact Beer Tourism

Animas Brewing officially opened along the river in December of last year.

Animas Brewing officially opened along the river in December of last year.

A toxic spill that colored the Animas River a muddy, polluted shade of yellow last week could potentially hurt the beer tourism business in Durango, Colo.

The Animas River has been closed since last Thursday after the Environmental Protection Agency – the federal agency usually in charge of holding accountable similar offenders – accidentally spilled into it more than three million gallons of toxic water from abandoned mines.

Brewers in Durango brew with water from the Florida River, and are thus unaffected by the spill from an operational standpoint. Given the town’s small population of around 17,500 people, though, some brewers reliant on summertime tourism dollars say the spill might scare out-of-towners away from visiting, forcing them to take a financial hit in the weeks, or even months, to come.

Kris Oyler, co-founder and CEO of Steamworks Brewing, said “there are potential profits to be left on the table” as a result of the spill keeping would-be tourists away from the city.  

“Durango’s not a huge town,” said Oyler. “There’s six breweries. Not all six breweries are going to survive alone just on local business. We need tourism to help make us profitable at certain times of the year.”

Oyler said he’s not as worried about more imminent business. Since the long-term effects of the spill are still somewhat unknown, he said he’s “more concerned with what’s going to happen in the fall and then into next year.”

While CNN reported Tuesday “the river is returning to normal,” it nevertheless remains closed. The report cited fears of toxicologists that heavy metals such as lead and mercury could linger and prove to be health concerns for years to come.

Though Ska Brewing doesn’t use water from the Animas to brew its beer, the brewery has in the recent past benefitted from its presence. In May, after the Animas River Days parade – an annual weekend long festival with live music and races on the water – Durango Transit offered a bus service to the brewery from the festival.

Ska, too, expects its tourism business to be impacted by the spill.

“We are anticipating a slight decrease in tourism over the next couple weeks,” said Kristen Muraro, Ska Brewing’s marketing manager. “Luckily Durango has so many activities in addition to the river that there is plenty to see and do while visitors are in town.”

While unfortunate, the spill does give brewers in the area an opportunity to live up to the community-minded reputation craft brewers at large enjoy, something both Steamworks and Ska said they plan to do.

Oyler said Steamworks plans to get involved with restoring the river, but doesn’t have specific plans yet as “there’s a still a lot of monitoring of what’s in the river and what can be done.”

Muraro, meanwhile, added that Ska is working on “a special brew and some fundraising efforts” to show its support for the community members largely impacted by the spill, namely farmers and rafting companies.

“It has impacted our community as a whole and we plan on doing what we can as a business to help support our fellow community members,” said Muraro.