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Last week, workers with the Environmental Protection Agency accidentally released wastewater at an abandoned gold mine in southwest Colorado. An estimated 3 million gallons of mining wastewater, laced with heavy metals, spilled into the Animas River. It's now moving downstream, and as Grace Hood from Colorado Public Radio reports, residents are worried that the discharge will enter their water supply.
GRACE HOOD, BYLINE: Mining wastewater does seep into streams in southwestern Colorado where there are abandoned mines. But the Durango community hasn't seen an event of this scale in recent memory. On Sunday, the city in La Plata County made a disaster declaration. Right now there are many questions and there are few answers. What are the health implications? When will the river reopen? All of the town's frustrations came to a head inside a packed middle school auditorium Sunday night. EPA officials said preliminary results show that at the height of the release, water had significantly higher than normal levels of arsenic and lead. But the agency offered no conclusions about any health effects.
RUSSELL BEGAYE: And one of the first thing we said from the get-go is tell us what's in the water.
HOOD: That's a frustrated Russell Begaye, president of the Navajo Nation. The toxic plume traveled into the Nation's land south of Durango via the San Juan River.
BEGAYE: Tell us what's in the water.
HOOD: It was like this throughout the evening. Residents were demanding information. Shaun McGrath, Region 8 administrator with the EPA, told residents the agency was working hard to find answers.
SHAUN MCGRATH: Unfortunately, the reality is in doing an analysis of metals, it takes time for that process to happen. So first, we got to go out and collect samples. We got to get it to the labs.
HOOD: Then there's a two-day lag. Then health experts have to draw their conclusions. The Navajo Nation is in the process of filing a lawsuit against the EPA. After the meeting, Durango resident Rose Chilcoat came away unsatisfied, like many.
ROSE CHILCOAT: We talked about metals. We talked about levels, but what is the long-term known outcomes of exposure? We don't know what our exposure is, but tell how bad it could be.
HOOD: Those questions are on the mind of kayaker Dave Farkus. He got into the Animas River last Thursday before he heard any warnings about the orange plume. Farkus says he wasn't put off by the tinted water because that sometimes happens in an area with old mines and water runoff.
DAVE FARKUS: A cement creek can go orange from all the mining runoff, and so we've seen that in Durango before.
HOOD: But nothing like it was on Thursday. Farkus and two friends found themselves surrounded by the orange plume.
FARKUS: Splashing in our eyes, our mouth, our ears, you know, up our nose, stuff like that. You know, I get flipped over upside down, so, yeah, I still have some definite health concerns to see what was in there.
HOOD: It wasn't until Farkus got out of the river that he learned the extent of the spill. Hours later a picture of him and two other kayakers in orange water was shared across the country. There is still water leaking from the Gold King Mine. It's being captured by the EPA in ponds. Animas River water near Durango is showing lower signs of contaminants after the plume moved downstream. Meantime, many towns and waters districts in Colorado and New Mexico have shut off their taps from the river. They're drawing water from reserves or other sources. Kayakers, boaters - everyone in southwest Colorado is being told to stay away from the river.
DREW KENSINGER: There's no work for the raft guides. It's hard on our bus drivers that transport the people around.
HOOD: Drew Kensinger is operations manager for Mild to Wild Rafting. He says he's had to refund trips canceled over the last four days.
KENSINGER: We have about 40 to 45 employees not working right now.
HOOD: On Sunday, the EPA set up a claims process for businesses that have lost income. More data samples and health conclusions are expected soon. For NPR News, I'm Grace Hood in Durango, Colo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.