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EPA triples estimate of mine waste spilled into Animas River to 3 million gallons

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DURANGO, Colo. -- The Environmental Protection Agency has tripled its estimate of how much contaminated water gushed in the Animas River last week.

The announcement came as a state of emergency was declared by Gov. John Hickenlooper, who plans to tour the area Tuesday.

The EPA held a community meeting in Durango on Sunday night in which about 500 people attended. The EPA said at the meeting it now estimates 3 million gallons of contaminated water went into a tributary the river from a mine north of Silverton on Wednesday.

The emergency declaration will make $500,000 in state funds immediately available to help in the cleanup of the river, which has turned a yellowish-orange color.

The new estimate on the size of the discharge comes from stream gauges the EPA has in place to monitor the river. 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 for the time being.

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.

The blowout occurred last week when the EPA was working on an old mine. Many people at the meeting Sunday night said they want the EPA to be held accountable for the cleanup.

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