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Seeping water is sign of looming disaster

10:30 PM, Feb 13, 2008   |    comments
Contaminated water from old mine near Leadville
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A state lawmaker plans to send a letter to President George Bush and Gov. Bill Ritter (D-Colorado) asking them to take action.

Commissioners worry slowly rising water levels inside a mountain in north Leadville, combined with its increasing pressure, could cause water to blow out from a drainage tunnel.

Commissioners say an uncontrolled blowout could kill more than 100 Leadville residents and contaminate the Arkansas River from Leadville to Pueblo.

Water samples taken from inside and at the base of the mountain show unsafe levels of zinc and cadmium, according Lake County Commissioner Ken Olsen. He said the unsafe levels were found at California Gulch and County Road 6 in Leadville.

High levels of cadmium can damage the liver and kidneys or cause death. High levels of zinc can cause vomiting, pancreas damage and other serious illnesses. Both elements can be toxic to fish.

The volume of water became trapped inside the mountain when parts of a drainage tunnel collapsed. It is not known when the collapse occurred, but the EPA says it has been working toward a solution to the drainage tunnel blockage since 2001.

"This could be one of the biggest major environmental catastrophes that we've ever faced in the western part of the United States," said Sen. Tom Wiens (R-Castle Rock). Wiens' district covers Leadville.

"We need immediate action by our state government and our federal government to make sure we dewater that mine pool to take the pressure off of it," said Wiens who planned to send his letter late Wednesday night to Ritter and President Bush. "The government is absolutely, positively failing to do (its) job."

"It needs immediate action and we need to treat it as an emergency," said Wiens. "The federal government owns this and the federal government is not protecting the people of Colorado and the Arkansas River."

Click here to read Wiens' entire letter.

The Bureau of Reclamation, a federal agency under the Department of the Interior, owns the Leadville Mine Drainage Tunnel.

The area manager of the Bureau of Reclamation, Mike Collins, says safety of residents is his number one concern. He denies there is an immediate threat to residents living near the mine drainage tunnel.

"I don't know if there has been any risk identified yet," Collins told 9Wants to Know in an interview on Feb. 11. "There is nothing that I would consider anything to be scared of."

However, 9Wants to Know obtained a November 2007 letter from the EPA written to the Bureau of Reclamation.

EPA Regional Administrator Robert Robert wrote:

"Due to the unknown condition of the tunnel blockages and the large volume of water behind the blockages, we are concerned that an uncontrolled, potentially-catastrophic release of water to the Arkansas River from the LMDT (Leadville Mine Drainage Tunnel) is likely at some point.

Not only endangering human life (people living at the East Fork Trailer Park and BOR employees,) the sudden release of water, rock, sediment, and heavy metals to the Arkansas River would be an environmental disaster."

Click here to read Robert's entire letter.

Collins confirmed the Bureau of Reclamation received the letter and says his agency is working on an assessment of the problem. The assessment, started last year, will be finished sometime this fall. Collins declined to give a specific date.

"Safety is our number one priority and we are moving with all due haste," said Collins, who denied that his office should have started the assessment earlier than last fall.

Leadville residents such as Debbie Turner say the Bureau of Reclamation cannot wait until the assessment is complete to start acting on the problem. Turner lives in a mobile home directly in front of the drainage tunnel's opening.

"Ground zero," Turner said as she pointed to her home. "We're the first ones to go.

"They told me I wouldn't have to worry about drowning, I'd be crushed first," said Turner. "The mountain would just collapse and the water would come down. It would be like a huge rockslide with flooding."

County Commissioner Olsen worries the build up of water in the mountain could reverse a more than $70 million Superfund site cleanup project undertaken by the EPA.

The California Gulch Superfund site cleanup project started in 1983.

EPA community involvement coordinator Jennifer Lane said the cleanup is about 75 percent complete.

Olsen worries that clean up could be reversed if the buildup of water begins to seep into contaminated soil.

In an area three miles from the drainage tunnel, Olsen said he's witnessed new seepage that previously didn't exist on the mountain side.

He believes the water is being forced upward and outward by the intense pressure of water inside the mountain.

The seepage hasn't yet appeared in contaminated area, which the EPA is working to cleanup, but Olsen fears it could happen any time.

Olsen is one of three commissioners who voted unanimously to declare a local state of emergency in Leadville. (Click here to read the resolution declaring a disaster emergency.) He hopes Ritter will do the same at a state level and then President Bush will do the same at a federal level.

Declaring state and federal emergencies would allow monies from those bodies to be used to fix the problem.

Local residents, including Olsen, believe installing pumps or new tunnels will relieve the building water pressure inside the mountain.

Until it's fixed, Turner won't let her children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren visit her home.

"I haven't told them why I don't want to let them come right now, but that's why," she said.

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