Morgan Liddick: Leadville’s mine pollution, or when the past catches up
February 18, 2008
So Leadville ” the West’s most scenic Superfund site ” is about to get hosed again, literally. Or not.
The question, for those of you who have been hibernating for the past week or so, is something called the Leadville Mine Drainage Tunnel. Built by the Federal government in the 1940s to remove water from mines which produced strategic minerals for the U.S. effort in World War II, the tunnel was subsequently transferred to the Federal Bureau of Reclamation, where it was apparently neglected for decades.
At some point, maybe as long as 30 years ago, the tunnel began to collapse, trapping as much as a billion gallons of water in old mine tunnels, porous rock and in the body of the tunnel itself. But that’s not all.
Since this is mining country, the trapped water contains all those interesting and vicious chemicals that make mine runoff something you would neither want to drink nor bathe in on a regular basis. Toxic acids, cadmium, sulfates, zinc and other nasty metals ” it’s all there, in concentrations that might make the beginnings of a good B-grade science fiction film. Only this is as real as it gets.
The Bureau of Reclamation and the Environmental Protection Agency have known about the runoff problem for decades. In the 1990s, the BOR actually brought a water treatment plant online to deal with the Drainage Tunnel’s output. They have also known about the blockage problem for at least eight years, and have done … very little except disagree over the seriousness of the situation. Finally, last November, the regional administrator of the EPA sent a letter to the Bureau of Reclamation demanding that they form some sort of a plan to deal with the dangers posed by the pressure buildup inside the hills around Leadville.
The Bureau of Reclamation, meanwhile, insists that there is no reason to “panic.”
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Local water supplies are “safe,” despite the sudden appearance of new springs and seeps in California Gulch that are dribbling out water laced with toxic metals. But what will happen when the Spring snowmelt raises the local water table and adds untold thousands of gallons of water to that already trapped behind the impromptu plug of the collapsed tunnel?
Will the plug fail, essentially creating a 30-foot-wide fire hose until all the pent-up water is released? Will it hold, only to see a breakout elsewhere, perhaps a geyser amid the new springs of California Gulch? And how will the resulting cadmium drizzle affect the fine citizens of Leadville?
Whatever their travails, there will be other, far-reaching and serious effects from such a blowout. The polluted runoff will immediately poison the headwaters of the Arkansas River, and then move downstream, threatening the water supplies of major cities such as Pueblo and Colorado Springs. Such a plume of pollution would bring huge public costs to the state; none of us, no matter how far removed from sight of the Collegiate Range, would be unaffected.
One of the interesting aspects of this problem has been the reaction of Colorado’s public officials. Both Representative John Salazar and state Senator Tom Wiens have spoken out on the situation, as has Senator Wayne Allard. In fact, both senators Allard and Wiens have had a press conference today to discuss alternatives, and to press for solutions.
Senator Ken Salazar has had a meeting with Leadville officials. Representative Mark Udall, presently seeking Senator Allard’s seat, has made no comment. His website, however, does feature an award given him by prominent environmental groups for “protecting public lands,” so one hopes his involvement will not be long in coming.
As a conservative, I have a general aversion to government solving peoples’ problems for them; this is usually both expensive and enervating. The Leadville situation is, however, one which cries out for a public solution, for three reasons.
First, the problem is simply beyond the capacity for the community and perhaps even the state, to solve alone.
Second, the repercussions of a catastrophic failure of the Leadville Mine Drainage Tunnel would be felt far beyond the local community or even the state; waterborne toxic chemicals have a long life and travel far.
Third and most significant, this is a problem brought on in good part by Leadville’s contribution to the U.S. war effort in 1941-45. The drainage tunnel was built for war production. It became the charge of a public agency of the U.S. Government, through whose negligence it was damaged; the present straits are caused by this negligence and failure. As a consequence, it should fall to the Federal Government to heed the admonitions of Colorado’s lawmakers, and solve the problem.
Now, and for good.