Acid blown to atoms during May ‘Boom Days’
LEADVILLE – Nearly eight pounds of one of the most explosive chemicals around went up in smoke and flames this week, sending a shock wave through Leadville’s rarefied atmosphere and attracting the attention of a few local residents.”It sounded like someone dropped something heavy outside the window,” said Geraldine Gonzales, who felt the explosion while having lunch at her home. “I looked out the window to see if anyone was out there and then I remembered what it was. I thought it would be louder.”
What she described was the planned detonation of an 1988-vintage acid, stored in the assay laboratory of the Leadville Corp., located at the site of the old Arkansas Valley Smelter near Stringtown. Officials knocked on neighborhood doors to warn nearby residents, put highway and air traffic on hold and hoped for the best when the explosion took place during lunch hour Tuesday.Officers from the Colorado Springs Police Department Bomb Squad were on hand to carry out the detonations, the final step in a project by the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment. Following the discovery of the chemicals and an analysis conducted in March, officials decided some of the compounds should be destroyed in place. The unstable and dangerous nature of the chemicals made moving them elsewhere risky. The more harmless substances were taken away for disposal in other locations.
Among the more sinister of the chemicals was perchloric acid, as well as a variety of old ketones and alcohols, all of which had explosive properties. Ken Niswonger, analytical chemist for the health department’s Hazardous Materials Division, said the repository was bad alchemy waiting to happen.”This is a remnant of days gone by. It was allowed to freeze for 16 years and was stored around other dehydrating agents,” he said. “These days, they wouldn’t be allowed to do that. This was all preventable.”
Fortunately, the experts got to the material before they were found by curious residents. With some of the compounds, heat, movement, water or sunlight could trigger nasty chemical reactions, including lethal vapors or explosions. Other chemicals, with a long-expired shelf-life, had dried into highly unstable crystalline form. The acid, gingerly examined with light and x-rays, was found to be an “imminent and substantial hazard” to buildings, people and the environment, Niswonger added.