Mine contamination rings alarms in Leadville | SummitDaily.com

Mine contamination rings alarms in Leadville

KATIE REDDING
lake county correspondent

LEADVILLE ” The pool of contaminated water trapped by the collapse in the Leadville Mine Drainage Tunnel is an immediate threat to the lives and well-being of Lake County citizens, according to the Lake County Commissioners.

“Lake County residents and the citizens that live in the Arkansas Valley Watershed are faced with an imminent threat that cannot be ignored anymore,” read Lake County Commissioner Mike Hickman at a special meeting of the Lake County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) on Wednesday. With that, the commissioners declared a state of emergency in Lake County.

Per the Colorado Disaster Emergency Procedures Handbook for Local Officials, local officials may declare a state of emergency when the needed response to an emergency is at or beyond the normal capability of local government agencies, said Commissioner Hickman.

A blockage in the Leadville Mine Drainage Tunnel has caused more than a billion gallons of water of toxic acid and metal-laden water to form a pool at the headwaters of the Arkansas River, according to Commissioner Hickman.

He explained that the water is now nearly 200 feet high and continues to apply pressure against the cave-in. Given that the Denver Post recently declared snowpack levels in the Upper Arkansas Valley to be 163 percent of normal, spring runoff will only increase the size of the pool, he said.

“You must all understand that there is a potential risk of catastrophic failure … which could lead to a loss of life, and environmental degradation of the Arkansas River beyond anyone’s comprehension,” said Commissioner Hickman.

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In addition to their concerns about a potential blowout of the makeshift dam, the commissioners believe that some of the water backing up behind the blockage may be working its way underground and surfacing below the Yak treatment plant in California Gulch. Seeps and springs in California Gulch have recently popped up, and water tests in the gulch have found significant increases in zinc and cadmium, say the commissioners.

This situation poses a potential threat to the Leadville public drinking water supply and all water sources downstream, say the commissioners.

The Leadville Mine Drainage Tunnel was built by the Bureau of Mines during World War II in order to de-water mines for the war effort. It was later sold to the Bureau of Reclamation, and for years it continued to collect and drain acid mine drainage from Leadville mines. After long negotiations between the Environmental Protection Agency and Bureau of Reclamation, a lawsuit by the Sierra Club prompted the construction of the Leadville Mine Drainage Tunnel Treatment Plant, which came online in 1992. The plant is supposed to treat the contaminated water coming through the tunnel ” but if the water cannot flow through the tunnel, it cannot be treated.

At the special meeting, several members of the Leadville community spoke of their concerns regarding the mine-waste leakage. Greg Teter, the general manager of Parkville Water District, noted that he was particularly concerned about the possibility that some sources of public drinking water could be contaminated. On a scale of 1-10, he said, his concern ranked as a 10.

“It’s the biggest concern I’ve had in 30 years.”

Debbie Turner, who owns the mobile park below the mine pool, spoke of her worries about safety for the park’s residents. “Well, since I’m at ground zero, I guess (my biggest fear is) being smashed,” she said.

Jeff Foley, Lake County’s emergency manager, spoke of Lake County’s inability to respond to a major disaster. Though Lake County responds to day-to-day emergencies well, he explained, its response capabilities max out in the first 12-24 hours of a major event.

“It would exceed our capabilities,” he said of a tunnel collapse.

The Lake County Commissioners may be voicing the loudest concerns, but they aren’t the only ones working on a solution. The Environmental Protection Agency has been worried about the collapse in the Leadville Mine Drainage Tunnel for years, and it has even gone so far as to draw up plans for a potential solution. On Nov. 8, 2007, Robert E. Robert, Regional Administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency requested by letter that the Bureau of Reclamation immediately address the potential risks.

Leadville’s congressional representatives have recently become involved, as well.

On Feb. 4, Senator Ken Salazar wrote to the Bureau of Reclamation, expressing his concern that the Bureau of Reclamation, wasn’t fully cooperating with other agencies.

Senator Tom Wiens has written a letter expressing his concerns about the LMDT, but he has not yet sent it out.

But thus far, no action has been taken on the matter.

However, by declaring a state of emergency, the BOCC hopes to arouse some aid within the week.

“Truly, what we’re trying to do today is prevent bad things from happening,” said Commissioner Olsen.