Health officials urge Utahns to avoid portion of American Fork River due to elevated levels of lead

SALT LAKE CITY -- Health officials are warning the public, especially children, to stay out of the American Fork River from Tibble Fork Reservoir and downstream after water samples showed elevated levels of lead in the sediments.

According to a press release from the Department of Environmental Quality, samples taken above and below Tibble Fork Dam Tuesday showed elevated levels of metals in the sediment, but lower concentrations in the water.

The Utah County Health Department is taking precautions, including posting caution signs along the river to warn people against wading or walking along the banks.

"It’s a concern, especially lead is, we’re issuing a caution for the use of the American Fork River," said Walt Baker, a director for the Utah Division of Water Quality.

The potentially toxic sediments were unleashed Saturday from a dam rehabilitation project, the press release states. Hundreds of fish were found dead in the area earlier this week. 

"We commented on the fact it was very brown, it looked like a lot of sediment, we weren’t sure where it came from, it didn’t seem normal," said Larry Brown during a visit to the area.

Anyone who comes in contact with river bank sediment should wash all of the sediment from their skin, clothing and equipment.

"Children are more prone to immerse themselves in water and sediment, and getting it into their skin, skin-to-mouth contact, and the risk and the tolerance for metals is not as tolerant [as it is in adults]," Baker said.

Because the elevated levels appear to be limited to sediment and not the water itself, at this time the water can still be used for agricultural purposes. The Utah Department of Agriculture and Food states they do not believe the water poses a risk to livestock or crops.

Drinking water is not impacted by the contamination, as the river is not used for culinary purposes. Springs used by American Fork are being tested as a precaution, but at this time there is no indication that culinary water has been affected.

The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources is urging anglers to practice catch and release as a precaution. DWR biologists collected live fish from the creeks to determine whether the sediments released will have long-term effects.

Baker said the issue won't correct itself naturally.

"It’s not going anywhere, it may move around a little, but it is there until we can come up with some cleanup plan, a long-term plan for remediation," he said.