- WEB EXCLUSIVE
- PE COFFEEHAUS
At 10,152 feet, the small town of Leadville, Colo. (pop. 2,800), is the highest incorporated city in America. But according to local officials, bureaucratic wrangling has left North America’s highest incorporated high but not dry, exposing it to the possibility of one of worst mining disasters in the country’s history.
At issue is a drainage tunnel built by the federal government in 1943 to collect water from the hundreds of tunnels that honeycomb the surrounding hills. Problems were noted in the 1970s as water contaminated with heavy metals began pooling. In 2005, the EPA offered to pump water to the Bureau of Reclamation treatment plant but the plan was nixed as the bureau claimed the additional water was not part of their cleanup agreement. The state declined to pick up any responsibility for the site.
Water levels have increased by 50 feet since May 2005, to a total of 150 feet. According to local officials, anxiety is now especially high as heavy snowfall this past winter could prove dangerous as it melts this spring. Were the mine to rupture, EPA officials said, it could conceivably flood the town with toxic water.
County commissioners have sought the help of Democratic Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar. Gov. Bill Ritter Jr. also has sent a letter to President Bush. The EPA agreed in February to spend $1.5 million to drill into the tunnel and begin pumping water to the Bureau of Reclamation plant.
Gold and silver mines fueled the local economy in the late 1800s. Those gave way to zinc and lead mining during World War II and the Korean War. Molybdenum was refined after that to be used to support the steel industry. The EPA listed the area as a Superfund site in 1983 and the mine closed in 1986 after a decline in molybdenum prices.