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Colorado Reopens River After Major Contamination Spill

Massive cleanup efforts remain underway, however, after an EPA team accidentally released 3 million gallons of contaminated mine water into the river, with the plume spreading to New Mexico and Utah.

Originally posted on
Updated on

Colorado officials are reopening a river that was closed after a major contamination spill earlier this month.

Brennan Linsley / AP

Dried yellow residue remains on a rock in Animas River on Aug. 11.

The Animus River, which was closed Aug. 6 after millions of gallons of contaminated mine water was accidentally released, will be reopened after recent tests show the levels of contamination "are below what would be a concern for human health during typical recreational exposure," according to the La Plata County Sheriff's Office.

While officials warned that there is some level of contamination in most Colorado

rivers because of the natural geology and past mining activity, state public health officials said they do not anticipate adverse health effects from "typical recreational activities."

The river was reopened at noon Friday.

Despite the reopening, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment advised the public to:

- Not drink untreated water from the river

- Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water after contact with the sediment and surface water.

- Avoid contact in areas where there is visible discoloration in sediment or river water.

- Wash clothes after contact with sediments and surface water

The contaminated mine water had turned the Animas River into a sludgy yellow last week, and has since reached Utah and New Mexico.

GRAPHIC: #Toxic Gold King Mine spill has reached Utah since it leaked into the #Animas River in Colorado:

According to the Associated Press, the water is expected to reach Lake Powell and the Colorado River by the middle of the week. The impact of the contamination remains unknown as testing continues.

The Environmental Protection Agency is working to stop the spread of the Gold King Mine wastewater, which was accidentally released by its workers when they opened an abandoned tunnel on Aug. 5, sending the contamination into the Animas River near Durango, Colorado.

The temporary river closure was a major hardship for Navajo farmers, as well as reservation residents who depend upon it for drinking water, the Navajo Times reported.

Businesses that rely on the river, such as paddle rental and tour guides, also saw the effects of lost customers, the Durango Herald reported.

The governors of Colorado and New Mexico also declared disaster emergencies due to the spill.

Jerry Mcbride / The Durango Herald via AP

The executive orders issued by Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado and Gov. Susana Martinez have freed up hundreds of thousands of dollars for well testing and other remediation efforts.

"I had the chance to see the spill with my own eyes. It is absolutely devastating, and I am heartbroken by this environmental catastrophe," Martinez said in a statement.

The EPA initially estimated the spill at 1 million gallons, then revised its number on Sunday, the Durango Herald reported.

In a public meeting, EPA representatives said that although water was still leaking from the mine, it was being captured and treated before it reached other waterways.

"At this point, it's moving clear," regional administrator Shaun McGrath said.

Still, Hickenlooper and Martinez both called on the federal government to monitor the ongoing environmental impact and ensure such a spill never happens again.

"Our priority remains to ensure public safety and minimize environmental impacts,” Hickenlooper said in a statement. “By declaring a disaster emergency, we are able to better support impacted businesses and communities with state resources. We will work closely with the EPA to continue to measure water quality as it returns to normal, but also to work together to assess other mines throughout the state to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

McGrath acknowledged that there could be environmental impacts for years.

Brent Lewis/The Denver Post via Getty Images

As the plume moved through the river, it settled out into the riverbed.

"We do expect over the coming months and years, as there are surges in the river, that settlement can get kicked up," McGrath said.

Interactive before and after view of the #AnimasRiver @EPA triggered #Minewaste - http://t.co/iB4TP56DUl

The Animas River in #Durango #Colorado. Now. Tragic. Photo by Steve Fassbinder. #WeAreRi… http://t.co/Fk0ddjLaOs

The EPA told reporters the spill had no immediate impact to wildlife in the area. Tests of the water were ongoing, but officials said acidity and metal levels appeared to be decreasing.

The Gold King Mine had been abandoned since 1923.

EPA

According to the Associated Press, it's one of 55,000 abandoned mines in the region. As groundwater and snowmelt fill abandoned tunnels, the water becomes contaminated with metals and acid. Contaminated water may then reach fresh waterways.

Claudia Koerner is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles.

Contact Claudia Koerner at claudia.koerner@buzzfeed.com.

Jason Wells is a news editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles.

Contact Jason Wells at jason.wells@buzzfeed.com.

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