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Colorado residents brace for disaster

A tunnel above Leadville bulging with water threatens to rupture, flooding the area. A plan to drain it is months away.

February 24, 2008|DeeDee Correll | Times Staff Writer

LEADVILLE, COLO. — The logistics of escape is the main topic of conversation these days for the people who live near an old mining tunnel.

How many cars could make it up the snow-crusted emergency road at a time? What if it's 3 a.m., and they're sound asleep? How would someone in a wheelchair outrun a flood?

Overnight, these have become pressing questions for the people who live below the Leadville Mine Drainage Tunnel, just outside this mining town 85 miles southwest of Denver.

The 2.1-mile underground tunnel that some barely knew existed has suddenly become a fearsome thing, a monster with a billion gallons of backed-up, metals-laden water in its belly.

With heavy snowpack and water levels in the tunnel higher than they've ever been, Lake County commissioners this month declared a state of emergency, saying they fear a life-threatening flood and environmental disaster if the tunnel ruptures.

Now they've got media trucks lining the streets of Leadville, population 2,820, and a mayor angry about the publicity he fears will harm the town's lifeblood of tourism. They've got nervous, sleepless residents returning to the windows to check the snow-blanketed hill, while others consult maps to see if their homes are on high enough ground.

They've also got federal and state officials -- who have squabbled for years over how to deal with the tunnel -- scrambling for a solution.

Billing itself as the city with the highest elevation in North America, at 10,200 feet, Leadville is a working-class town that prides itself on its mining heritage and historical tidbits like the fact that gunfighter Doc Holliday had his final shootout here. The mines are closed now, and many residents work "over the hill" in the pricey ski resort town of Vail.

About two miles outside city lies the Leadville tunnel, constructed in 1943 by the U.S. Bureau of Mines to drain water from hundreds of mines. But the tunnel was never completed, and over the years, portions of it caved in, causing water to back up.

In recent years, federal agencies haven't agreed on how to handle the tunnel -- mostly because they couldn't agree on whose problem it was.

Although the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation acquired the tunnel's portal in 1959, it has maintained that its only mission is to treat water flowing from the tunnel -- which is part of a Superfund site. It operates a plant at the the tunnel's foot that captures water as it drains. The plant removes zinc and other heavy metals and toxins before releasing the water into the Arkansas River.

The Superfund site that encompasses the tunnel and surrounding area is managed by the Environmental Protection Agency. In 2003, the EPA suggested decommissioning the tunnel, said Bill Murray, regional director of the Superfund remedial program. The plan called for inserting plugs to prevent a blowout, then pumping out the water and piping it to the reclamation plant for treatment.

But for the next several years nothing happened as the EPA, Bureau of Reclamation and state argued over who should be responsible for treating the contaminated water.

Last year, the water treatment plant manager, Brad Littlepage, said he saw signs that the situation inside the tunnel was worsening. Littlepage -- who emphasized he was not speaking on behalf of his employer -- said that when Bureau of Reclamation officials didn't respond, he took his concerns to the county, which began taking a closer look at the tunnel.

A spokesman for the bureau said it understood Littlepage's concerns but disagreed with his assessment that the situation had become urgent.

Then in November the EPA sent a letter to the Bureau of Reclamation in which it characterized a catastrophic release of water as "likely at some point." The EPA doesn't have a formal study indicating how high or low that risk is, according to officials.

On Feb. 13, Lake County commissioners declared a state of emergency.

The mayor of Leadville, Bud Elliott, calls the county's declaration irresponsible.

Soon after the news broke, he said, the town's insurance carrier told him it plans to cancel Leadville's liability insurance when it expires in April, despite the fact that the town is not in the direct path of a flood.

"What happens if one of our police cars gets in a traffic accident? What if you slip and fall on the stairs coming up to our office? Can we have a parade anymore?" said Elliott, who also worries about the declaration's effect on tourism.

Commissioner Mike Hickman defended the decision. "When one federal agency is telling another federal agency there is a substantial possibility of an environmental catastrophe, I'm not sure how much time you have before you make the decision," he said.

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