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Colorado River Spill: Early Tests Show Little Threat to Fish, Wildlife

Tests on the toxically orange Animas River in Colorado indicate little danger to fish or other wildlife, authorities said Monday.
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Preliminary tests on the once-toxically orange Animas River in Colorado indicate little danger to fish or other wildlife, authorities said Monday, five days after a spill sent contaminated water seeping into the river.

Gov. John Hickenlooper declared a state of emergency after the Environmental Protection Agency said Sunday that 3 million gallons of wastewater had spilled, three times as much as earlier estimates. The declaration will allow Hickenlooper to spend half a million dollars from the state's disaster fund on the incident.

Related: Colorado Wastewater Leak Far Exceeds First Estimates

The river flowed bright orange in the days after a cleanup crew supervised by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency accidentally breached a debris dam that had formed inside the Gold King Mine on Wednesday, sending a yellow-orange sludge leaking into the Animas River. Water collected downstream showed higher-than-normal levels of arsenic, lead and other metals.

By Monday, cleanup efforts had left many parts of the river clearer, with a greenish hue.

IMAGE: Comparison of Animas River on Friday and Sunday
The Animas River in Colorado, which was bright orange on Friday, was clearing rapidly and by Sunday afternoon was a greenish hue closer to its natural state.Environmental Protection Agency (left) / La Plata County, Colorado, government (right)

Local authorities said drinking water was safe because they'd shut off intake valves from the Animas, and Monday, the state Parks and Wildlife Department said results of five days of tests found "no evidence" of adverse effects on fish and wildlife along the river corridor.

The parks agency said it embedded trout fingerlings in cages along sections of the river on Thursday so it could monitor the water's impact. Monday, all but one of the 116 fingerlings were still alive, and no dead fish had been spotted elsewhere along the river, it said.

"A visit this afternoon found all lively little fish," the La Plata County government said in announcing the state results, adding: "Biologists have also walked and floated parts of the river looking for evidence of dead fish. No dead fish were found and there is no evidence of scavenging by other animals."

The EPA said Monday it was listing the spill as a top priority under the Superfund program to allow for a more extensive cleanup effort.

The discolored water has already reached New Mexico. New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez also declared a state of emergency Monday, saying she plans "to hold EPA accountable for this."

The next likely destination for the contaminated water is Utah, where state environmental quality officials said they expect to have test results from a stretch of the San Juan River by Tuesday.

"We're kind of in a wait-and-see mode right now," Donna Spangler, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Quality, told NBC station KSL of Salt Lake City.

Shaun McGrath, director of the EPA's Region 8, told NBC station KOB of Albuquerque that the agency would conduct a separate independent investigation to see what happened.

"We’ll look back and we’ll be taking steps in the future to ensure that we avoid these kinds of events," he said.