Mine emergency declared in Leadville | VailDaily.com

Mine emergency declared in Leadville

Katie Redding
Leadville Correspondent
Vail, CO Colorado

LEADVILLE, Colorado ” 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.

“Citizens, it is not our goal to cause panic, but it is our goal to protect human health and the environment. 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 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 tunnel caused over 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.

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“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 Hickman.

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.

The increase in contamination in California Gulch corresponds with an improvement in the quality of the water coming through the tunnel (pre-treatment). In short, contaminated water that should be treated at the tunnel’s treatment plant may instead be flowing straight into the Arkansas River, via California Gulch.

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

The 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 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Bureau of Reclamation, a lawsuit by the Sierra Club prompted the construction of the tunnel treatment plant, which opened 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 tunnel. 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 trailer 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.

Hickman compared a potential tunnel failure with the 1976 failure of the Teton Dam, also owned by the Bureau of Reclamation. He blamed the 1976 disaster on the Bureau of Reclamation’s failure to properly inform the public.

He worries the Bureau of Reclamation is repeating its mistake in Lake County, he said.

Although the Bureau of Reclamation has admitted the tunnel is blocked, and taken some action, their response has been inadequate, Hickman said.

“We are appalled to report that Reclamation has never enacted the emergency action plan beyond draft form, has never practiced evacuation procedures with the public, and has failed to test the public address siren system each year to date,” he said.

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

Leadville’s congressional representatives have recently become involved, as well. On February 4, 2008, Senator Ken Salazar wrote to the Bureau of Reclamation, expressing his concern that the Bureau of Reclamation wasn’t fully cooperating with the EPA or the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment.

Sen. Tom Wiens has written a letter expressing his concerns about the tunnel, 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 commissioners hope to arouse some aid within the week.

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