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Toxic Spill Into Colorado's Animas River Disrupts Livelihoods


The Environmental Protection Agency says it will take full responsibility for last week's toxic spill that turned a Colorado river near a gold mine bright yellow. It was an EPA team trying to seal up the abandoned gold mine that accidentally weakened a barrier wall of mud and rocks. Millions of gallons of toxic water poured into the Animas River, which flows through three states. The river is popular with kayakers and rafters, but for now, it's closed to recreational use while officials monitor its toxicity. We reached one man who makes his living off the river. Alex Mickel owns a rafting company in Durango just downstream from the spill.

Thanks for joining us.

ALEX MICKEL: Thanks for having me.

MONTAGNE: And first of all, can you tell us now what the river looks like? Because the photos we've been seeing is that it was, at least, shocking yellow, kind of this orangey yellow. How do you describe the state of the river just of a while ago and now?

MICKEL: Well, the river was initially a very yellowish-orange color as the spill moved downstream. It has moved past and the river has returned to really its clear green color now at this point.

MONTAGNE: Describe for us the Animas River in the sense that, in normal times, what goes on there? Why is it so popular?

MICKEL: Well, it's a beautiful mountain stream. It tumbles out of the San Juan Mountains originating at 13,000-plus feet, flows around a hundred miles downstream where it joins the San Juan River, which then joins the Colorado River.

MONTAGNE: Well, I'm wondering for you as a business - a rafting company - are people shying away, do you think, over this last period of the summer where you probably do a lot of business?

MICKEL: Oh, absolutely. It's been very difficult. This period that we've been closed from the spill, we're generally taking 150 to 200 people a day down the Animas River. So that's just business we'll never make up. Not only because of the immediate cancellations, but we're taking cancellations for much further down the road when we know we'd be back operating, but people don't want to get on the river.

MONTAGNE: Do you have the sense, though, that your business will come back or the river will come back?

MICKEL: I believe the river will come back. And I believe it will be back soon. The EPA has completed the cleanup on the Gold King Mine where the contamination was coming from. And that water is coming out of there cleaner than it has in probably 30 years.

MONTAGNE: And now, though, that you're looking at it and it looks, at least, like it's back to its clear, beautiful self, what do you expect?

MICKEL: Well, we expect that they'll open the river as soon as they feel it's safe to do so. There is some varying opinions. We had our governor take a drink of the river. So I think he's made his statement that he feels the river is ready to be recreated in again. I live on the banks of the river. My children play in it daily. And I won't want them or anyone else's kids playing in it until we know that it's safe.

MONTAGNE: Alex Mickel owns the rafting company Mild To Wild in Durango, Colo. Thanks for talking with us.

MICKEL: Thanks again for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.