By Keith Coffman
DENVER (Reuters) - A stretch of river fouled by toxic waste from an abandoned gold mine in southwestern Colorado last week was reopened to kayaking and rafting on Friday while water from river-fed irrigation canals was deemed safe for crops and livestock.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also said it was safe for homes and farms to resume drawing supplies of drinking water from private wells along the river farther downstream in New Mexico.
The lifting of various restrictions marked a gradual return of normalcy to life along the Animas River more than a week after the stream was turned bright orange by the spill of more than 3 million gallons (11.3 million liters) of acid mine waste, inadvertently triggered by an EPA crew.
Roughly 45 miles (72 km) of the river running through La Plata County, Colorado, south to the New Mexico border was reopened to recreation by order of the county sheriff, including the city of Durango, a resort town popular for river rafting and kayaking.
Water testing by Colorado's Department of Public Health and Environment found contamination levels have fallen "below what would be a concern for human health during typical recreational exposure," the sheriff said in a statement.
On Wednesday, state health authorities cleared the way for Durango, about 50 miles south of the spill's point of origin, to reopen its drinking water intakes from the river, though local officials said it would probably be several days before that happened. Water intakes from the Animas also have been shut down for the New Mexico towns of Aztec and Farmington.
EPA chief Gina McCarthy said on Wednesday that tests showed the river's overall water quality had returned to pre-spill levels, though the agency said long-term effects on fish and wildlife remain to be seen.
Farmers and ranchers along the Animas in Colorado resumed watering their fields and livestock on Friday after irrigation ditches fed by the river had been flushed clean, EPA officials said.
Wastewater loaded with high concentrations of heavy metals such as arsenic, lead and mercury was accidentally released from the century-old Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado, as an EPA crew attempted on Aug. 5 to stem seepage already occurring at the site.
The torrent of sludge first gushed into a stream called Cement Creek, just below the site, before washing into the Animas, which in turn flows to the San Juan River, a tributary of the Colorado River that winds through northwestern New Mexico into Utah and ultimately joins Lake Powell.
Water samples taken from the upper Animas above La Plata County last week at the height of the spill showed arsenic concentrations as high as 1,000 parts per billion, or 100 times the maximum level set by the EPA for drinking water.
While the waste has since dissipated through dilution, experts stress that contaminants have settled into river sediments, where they can be churned up and unleash a new wave of pollution when storms hit or the rivers flood.
Local authorities warned people to wash their hands thoroughly after contact with river sediment or surface waters, and to avoid contact with areas where visible discoloration remains.
(Reporting by Keith Coffman; Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman from Los Angeles; Editing by Lisa Lambert and Leslie Adler)