Animas River Contamination: Early Tests Optimistic, Long-term Fears Persist

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DURANGO, Colorado — Colorado’s top health official signaled that the 3 million gallons of spilled wastewater that contaminated the Animas River last week may not pose a health risk.

The heavy-metals-laden contaminants turned the Animas River a shade of mustard fit for a Crayola crayon box.

Fears of serious health risks quickly surfaced, but Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Executive Director Larry Wolk said Tuesday the river is returning to normal.

“We have our preliminary results back and at this point, we don’t feel that there’s any potential risk for human health,” Wolk said.

Specifically, the levels of heavy metals in the Animas River near the city of Durango had returned to where they were before the spill, he said.

The river remains closed, but the go-ahead for business and recreational activities to resume could come soon, he said.

The federal government’s own Environmental Protection Agency caused the August 5 spill at the Gold King Mine in Colorado.

The EPA has been the source of frustration for many local and state leaders who say the agency didn’t act fast enough to alert people about the spill, and didn’t have conclusive research on the dangers posed.

Leading toxicologists say there could be health effects for many years to come from heavy metals such as lead and mercury that spilled into the water. Exposure to high levels of these metals can cause an array of health problems from cancer to kidney disease to developmental problems in children.

In its latest statement, however, the EPA also predicted low risk levels.

“Based on the data we have seen so far, (the EPA doesn’t) anticipate adverse health effects from exposure to the metals detected in the river water samples from skin contact or incidental (unintentional) ingestion,” the agency said. “Similarly, the risk of adverse effects to livestock that may have been exposed to metals detected in river water samples from ingestion or skin contact is low.”

From his backyard in Durango, Tom Bartles can see the Animas River, which was stained an unnatural orange.

“Everybody in town knew it was coming. It was hard to wake up in the morning and see an orange river,” Bartles said. “Many of the locals in this region are probably going to experience a certain level of mourning.”

By Tuesday, the plume of heavy metals had largely moved on and the river looked clear. A tourist probably wouldn’t notice anything was off, but a local would know it’s not quite right, Bartles said.

Moving downstream

Much of the focus on Tuesday was in New Mexico, where the contamination was flowing down the Animas and into the San Juan River.

In Farmington, New Mexico, where the two rivers meet, there were worries, but also anger.

Worries of a health disaster were tamped down because the city shut down the intake plants it has on the river long before the wastewater reached the community. The city draws water from a natural reservoir that has approximately a 90-day supply of clean water.

The city has assured residents that drinking water from municipal sources is safe.

However, the same is not true for the many residents who get their water from wells.

The New Mexico Environment Department is testing Farmington-area well water on site at a sheriff’s substation. The department had 277 people come with samples Monday and 140 on Tuesday.

Residents who use wells in the floodplain of the Animas and San Juan rivers should not use that water for drinking, cooking or bathing until tests are completed, the city warns.

Potable water stations have been set up for these residents.

At a community center in Farmington, Lavine Tenorio filled up containers with free clean drinking water.

“We’re just being cautious,” she said. “I had these containers so I told my son, ‘Let’s go and get some water.’ ”

Disaster averted?

The reservoir, and preliminary results from tests on the water, appeared to have contained a panic, but the possibility of long-term danger remains.

At the Three Rivers Brewery in Farmington, owner Bob Buckley continues to use water for brewing, but he is hardly unaffected by the spill.

“The truth is that nobody knows to what extent” the contamination will cause health and environmental problems, he said.

There is sadness among residents over the spill, but also anger that the EPA was responsible for it. That same agency is now testing the water and hinting the health effects will be minimal, Beckley said, but how to trust them?

An avid kayaker and paddle-boarder, Beckley typically spends three days out of the week in the river.

He hasn’t taken a dip, however, since three days before the spill.

“I’ve already gone through fits,” he said.

According to the EPA, the spill occurred when one of its teams was using heavy equipment to enter the Gold King Mine, a suspended mine north of Durango. Instead of entering the mine and beginning the process of pumping and treating the contaminated water inside as planned, the team accidentally caused it to flow into the nearby Animas.

The New Mexico Environmental Department is collecting its own samples to test and posting both their and the EPA’s results on its website.

Farmington business owner Daryl Leeper is an expert when it comes to water. His company, Cascade Bottled Water & Coffee Service, purifies municipal water for bottling. If anyone has something to lose if the water becomes unusable, it’s him.

But for now, it’s business as usual, he said.

“Actually, from what I’ve seen, people have taken it in stride,” Leeper said. “As far as the dirty water, people are being cautious but no one is in panic mode.”

His phone has been ringing more than usual, he admits, but not because of a run on bottled water.

People are calling to see if he knows anything more about the situation.

Dan Simon reported from Durango, Colorado, and Mariano Castillo reported and wrote the story in Atlanta. CNN’s Sara Weisfeldt in Farmington, New Mexico, and Debra Goldschmidt, Ed Payne and Dana Ford in Atlanta contributed to this report.