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In this screenshot from a video posted Tuesday on the Durango Herald website, Gov. John Hickenlooper is seen drinking a bottle of water taken from the Animas River (and purified with iodine tablets).

Animas River Is Not Toxic, State Health Dept. Claims

One week after three million gallons of wastewater spilled into the Animas River in Durango, the executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment tells 5280 that the river is safe—and they don't expect any long-term health effects.

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The head of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment says that he sees no danger to people using the Animas River, a little more than a week after an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) accident sent three million gallons of mining wastewater into the river, turning the water a sludgy yellow and forcing the waterway’s closure.

“There really is no evidence of any human risk at this particular time,” Dr. Larry Wolk, the agency’s executive director and chief medical officer, told 5280 late Wednesday. “And we’re going to go ahead here shortly and reissue a release to that effect, basically reasserting our recommendation to the sheriff that it would be OK from out standpoint to reopen the river for recreational use.”

To further drive this point home, Gov. John Hickenlooper was filmed on Tuesday drinking a bottle of water from the river (purified with iodine tablets to prevent transmission of bacterias like Giardia and E.coli) to highlight that it’s no longer toxic.

“If that shows that Durango is open for business, I’m happy to help,” Hickenlooper told the Durango Herald.

(Read photographer John Fielder’s essay, “Preserving Our Natural Heritage”)

Wolk’s words came on the same day that U.S. Senators from Colorado and New Mexico (where the wastewater has traveled) wrote a letter to President Barack Obama urging him to “focus all appropriate federal resources on the tragic Gold King Mine spill.” The letter noted that the EPA has already begun a claims process for people impacted by the spill, but asked the president to ensure that the claims were processed efficiently. Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman also said Wednesday that she and her counterparts from New Mexico and Utah haven’t ruled out a lawsuit against the EPA. Coffman told the Denver Post that the full implications of the spill might not be known for years, but Wolk disagreed.

“I think we do, and I think the science doesn’t support a statement like that,” he said. “I hadn’t heard who that [statement was] directly attributed to—maybe it’s the attorney general, who’s an attorney—so I think the science would say that this was a temporary surge in levels of particular metals and affected the PH as well, but by all indications the conditions of the river is back to its pre-incident state.”

He said the state health department would continue to monitor the river, and that the testing would be ongoing, but “it’s kind of an odd statement. I have to say when I heard it—that the long-term impacts won’t be known for years, or the impacts of this spill won’t be known for years—I don’t think that’s correct scientifically.”

Gina McCarthy, the head of the EPA, visited the area Wednesday and, according to the Denver Post, called the accident “heartbreaking” and said that the EPA “couldn’t be more sorry.” She said similar operations around the country would be put on hold until the agency figured out what went wrong.

Wolk said he trusts the EPA to handle the situation correctly, and that the state health department and other local, state, and federal agencies will continue to work together going forward.

“They’ve been very accountable and responsible for the spill,” he said of the agency. “They’re trustworthy with regard to the credibility of their testing and how they have come together to manage this. I think for us, it’s a question of whether or not they can act quickly enough, as well as to provide Coloradans with the confidence that their own state health department is involved in validating the test results and trying to provide as expeditious an action here to get the water back into use as possible.”

While state officials, backed by Gov. Hickenlooper, claim that the river is safe to be reopened, the EPA hasn’t officially recommended it yet, despite the fact that federal and state tests indicate the waters have returned to pre-spill conditions. Ultimately, the decision will be left in the hands of local officials, who are not rushing to reopen the river until they know for certain that it’s safe.

(Read more: Can a comprehensive water plan actually work?)

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