Authorities in southwestern Colorado said on Friday it was safe for people to once again kayak and raft along a stretch of river that was fouled by toxic waste from an abandoned mine more than a week ago.
A roughly 45-mile portion of the Animas River running through La Plata County, Colorado, to the New Mexico border was reopened to recreation by order of the county sheriff. The order included the city of Durango, a resort town popular for its outdoor water sports.
Water samples tested by the state Department of Public Health and Environment showed levels of contamination had fallen “below what would be a concern for human health during typical recreational exposure,” the sheriff said in a statement.
On Wednesday, state health authorities cleared the way for Durango, about 50 miles south of the spill’s point of origin, to reopen its drinking water intakes from the river, although local officials said it would probably be several days before that actually happened.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief Gina McCarthy, whose agency has assumed responsibility for inadvertently causing the wastewater discharge, said on Wednesday that tests showed the river’s water quality had returned to pre-spill levels, as well.
More than 3 million gallons (11.3 million litres) of acid mine waste was accidentally released from the century-old Gold King mine near Silverton, Colorado, when an EPA crew attempted to stem seepage already occurring at the site.
The torrent of sludge unleashed by a breach of a mine tunnel wall on Aug. 5 first gushed into a stream called Cement Creek, just below the site, before washing into the Animas and turning the water bright orange.
From there, it flowed into the San Juan River, a Colorado tributary that winds through northwestern New Mexico into Utah and ultimately joins Lake Powell.
Water samples taken from the upper Animas above La Plata County last week showed arsenic concentrations 100 times the maximum level set by the EPA for drinking water.
While the waste has since dissipated through dilution, experts stress that contaminants have settled into river sediments, where they can be churned up and unleash a new wave of pollution when storms hit or the rivers flood.
Meanwhile, untreated water remained off-limits to drinking. Local authorities warned people to wash their hands thoroughly after contact with river sediment or surface waters, and to avoid contact with areas where visible discoloration remains.
Irrigation ditches that draw from the river were being flushed, and farmers were advised to continue to refrain from using that water for crops and livestock.
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