By Laura Zuckerman
(Reuters) - Stretches of two rivers in New Mexico contaminated by toxic waste earlier this month from an abandoned gold mine were reopened late Saturday to cities whose public drinking water systems are supplied by the rivers’ surface waters, state officials said.
Sections of the Animas and San Juan rivers also were re-opened for boating and fishing for the first time since being polluted by a spill of more than 3 million gallons of waste from the derelict Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado, New Mexico Environment Department spokeswoman Allison Scott Majure said.
A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency crew inadvertently caused the Aug. 5 release that ultimately fouled the Animas River, which flows southwest through Colorado to New Mexico, where it joins the San Juan River.
The reopening of the stretches in New Mexico came one day after Colorado officials approved the resumption of kayaking and rafting on a section of the Animas that turned bright orange from the spill, which contained such heavy metals as arsenic and lead.
New Mexico officials said testing found the waters met state and federal standards considered safe for drinking and recreation, Majure said.
Public water systems for the cities of Farmington and Aztec, with populations of 47,000 and 6,800 respectively, draw from the Animas and five smaller water supplies rely on the San Juan for water which is treated for drinking, she said.
On Wednesday, Colorado officials cleared the way for Durango, about 50 miles south of the spill’s point of origin into a tributary of the Animas, to reopen its drinking water intakes from the river.
Recreational users of the Animas and San Juan may notice discoloration in sediment along the river banks, but the New Mexico environment and health departments believe the waterways are safe for boating and fishing. But long-term monitoring will determine the effects on the aquatic environment, said Majure.
New Mexico is recommending anglers release their catch rather, as the state Game and Fish Department is still trying to determine contamination levels in fish, she said.
(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman, editing by Chris Michaud and Nick Macfie)