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Animas River reopens for recreational use after mine spill

COLORADO -- The Animas River in Colorado is back open for recreational use after a crew in July working for the Environmental Protection Agency accidentally breached a dam holding back heavy metals used in gold mining. 3 million gallons of mine waste containing heavy metals was unleashed.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment announced Friday that it had collected and analyzed sediment from the river. They said the data show levels of contamination are below what would be a concern for human health during typical recreational exposure.

As a result, Sheriff Sean Smith has made the decision to open the river for recreational use.

"My primary concern is the public health and safety of our community," he said.

Sheriff Smith said the reopening of the river for recreation would be effective Friday, Aug. 14 at noon.

Concern over sediment in Animas River 02:03

On Thursday sampling results released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency showed high levels of toxic heavy metals in the river following the spill.

The federal agency released its testing data following increasing public pressure.

The test results show water samples taken from the Animas River near Silverton, Colorado, in the hours after the spill contained lead levels more than 200 times the acute exposure limit for aquatic life and more than 3,500 times the limit for human ingestion. The arsenic levels were 823 times above the limit. And cadmium levels were 33 times higher.

Animas, San Juan rivers closed due to toxic waste 01:42

Earlier this week Gov. John Hickenlooper put an iodine tablet in a bottle of Animas River water to kill bacteria before taking a gulp. He was trying to prove the river was back to normal.

New Mexico's environment secretary criticized Colorado's governor for drinking water from the contaminated river.

The Farmington Daily Times reported that Secretary Ryan Flynn told residents there Wednesday night that the move was irresponsible and sent a bad message. He said Hickenlooper may as well have lit 15 cigarettes at once.

The mine waste spill was also not expected by the mine's owner, CBS Denver reports.

Critic slams EPA for mishandling toxic spill in Animas River 01:52

"Disbelief, just utter devastation, a little bit of incomprehension when I first saw the pictures last Thursday," mine owner Todd Hennis said.

Hennis said the EPA forced him to allow access to his mine four years ago. He did not want to give the EPA access to investigate the leakage from his mine but said he was fined daily.

"When you're a small guy and you're having a $35,000-a-day fine accrue against you, you have to run up the white flag," he said.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry recommends several health practices for those who come in contact with the Animas River water including: not drinking from it unless it is treated, washing hands thoroughly with soap and water, washing clothes after contact and avoiding areas where there is visible discoloration with the sediment and surface water.

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