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Gov. Hickenlooper declares Animas River contamination disaster emergency

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DURANGO, Colo. -- Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper on Monday declared a disaster emergency for the Animas River, which was contaminated when a mine plug blowout caused about 3 million gallons of wastewater to spew into a tributary.

The declaration makes about $500,000 from the state's Disaster Emergency Fund eligible to be used in the response to the contamination.

"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."

The announcement came after a state of emergency was declared by Hickenlooper last week. The governor plans to tour the area Tuesday.

The Environmental Protection Agency held a community meeting in Durango on Sunday night and was attended by about 500 people.

The EPA said it now estimates 3 million gallons of contaminated water went into a tributary the river from the Gold King Mine north of Silverton on Wednesday, triple its previous estimate.

The blowout occurred when the EPA was working the mine. Many people at the meeting said they want the EPA to be held accountable for the cleanup.

The contamination has caused the major river to turn a yellowish-orange color. The sludge is filled with heavy metals, and how it will affect people and the environment is still uncertain.

"It’s not good," said Tom Cech, the director of One World One Water Center MSU-Denver. "Basically water can dissolve rocks that are in the mountains on the west slope and as those minerals dissolve and release into the stream, the heavy metals can cause lots of issues."

As the mine spill makes its way through the river, authorities have told people to avoid contact with the water. The EPA recommended recreational users stay out of the water, putting a halt to summer kayaking, swimming and fishing.

The greatest concern is for the area near the spill site.

"The people on that side of our state love that river and they recreate on it and the tragedy is what will happen to the aquatic wildlife in that area," Cech said.

Because of Colorado’s expansive river system, it will also have a large trickle-down effect.

"That water allows our major metropolitan areas in the western U.S. to grow," Cech said. "Phoenix, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Diego — they’re relying on a large part upon water that originates in our state so the interconnectedness is highlighted in a tragedy like this."

The river system might not be waste-free anytime soon.

"The long-term effects of this event will depend on the flow of the river in future years," Cech said. "If we have good snowpack and flushing flows where the rivers rise in the springtime and those contaminants are flushed out it could cleanse itself sooner. If we have drought where it doesn’t rain or snow very much where the rivers are low those contaminants can hang around for a long time."

Cech said it’s hard to predict how long it could take.

"Nature has a way of cleansing itself. It’s going to take a while on this one," Cech said.