August 12, 2015 / 8:54 PM / 2 years ago

Colorado governor says worst of mine waste spill appears over

DENVER, Aug 12 (Reuters) - Contamination from 3 million gallons (11.3 million liters) of toxic waste that spewed from an abandoned gold mine in southwestern Colorado, turning a river bright orange, appears to have largely dissipated one week after the spill with no sign of lasting environmental harm, the governor said on Wednesday.

In a televised interview with the cable news channel MSNBC, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper also suggested the Animas River might be ready to reopen to rafting and kayaking in the next day or two.

The San Juan River and its northern tributary, the Animas River, were fouled by a torrent of acid mine sludge inadvertently released by a team of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) workers on Aug 5.

The EPA has previously said that state, local and federal authorities have agreed to keep the two rivers below it closed to fishing, recreation and intakes of water for drinking and irrigation until at least Aug. 17.

Residents also have been advised to avoid drinking or bathing in water drawn from private wells downstream, though the EPA has said here has been no immediate evidence of harm to humans, livestock or wildlife from the spill.

While EPA officials and toxicology experts stress that long-term ramifications of the spill remain to be seen, Hickenlooper said there did not "appear to be lasting environmental damage."

"We might have dodged a bullet," he said. "We might have had a visually appalling situation which in the end is not going to leave us with negative consequences.

The heavy metals sludge was released from the century-old Gold King Mine, near the town of Silverton, Colorado, into a stream below called Cement Creek.

The creek feeds the Animas, which in turn flows farther south into the San Juan, a Colorado River tributary that winds through northwestern New Mexico into Utah and ultimately joins Lake Powell.

EPA chief Gina McCarthy paid a visit on Wednesday to one of the communities hardest hit, Durango, Colorado, a resort town popular for its rafting and kayaking about 50 miles (80 km) downstream on the Animas. The attorneys general from Colorado, New Mexico and Utah planned to hold a separate news conference afterward.

The initial pulse of the spill, containing heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury and lead, has dissipated through dilution as the discharge has spread downstream, with the color of the water gradually returning to normal.

But experts have warned that deposits of heavy metals from the spill have settled into river sediments, where they can be churned up and unleash a new wave of pollution when storms hit or rivers run at flood stage.

In the meantime, wastewater still escaping from the mine site was being diverted into hastily built settling ponds where the effluent is treated before it empties into Cement Creek, sharply reducing its acidity and metal levels, the EPA said. (Reporting by Keith Coffman from Denver; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Sandra Maler)

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