MONTEZUMA - Colorado mining authorities have dug through a mountainside and reopened the dark granite shaft of an abandoned mine that turned deadly - trying to find options for dealing with one of the West's worst environmental problems.
The Pennsylvania Mine, perched above timberline, discharges an acidic orange stream moving 181 pounds per day of toxic metals into Peru Creek and the Snake River, which flow into Denver Water's Dillon Reservoir.
The poisoning of the watershed has gone on for more than 60 years.
Yet state officials say the risk of lawsuits prevents cleanup of this mine and thousands of other abandoned mines that have impaired 1,300 miles of Colorado streams and, according to federal estimates, the headwaters of 40 percent of Western rivers.
Today's digging reflects growing frustration. Colorado county governments recently resolved to lobby for congressional action as water quality and healthy mountain fisheries are increasingly important to the Western economy.
"The idea is to just get ourselves in there and see what the remedy might be," said Bruce Stover, director of Colorado's Office of Active and Inactive Mines, who was peering into the Penn Mine last week.
Orange slime - containing iron, cadmium, aluminum, mercury, zinc and lead - coats the walls of the mine 4 inches thick. The U.S. Forest Service and the Environmental Protection Agency paid for the use of heavy machinery to dig through 200 feet of collapsed mountainside to open the mine shaft.
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