February 15, 2008

Fear and Nervousness in Leadville

This developing news story of a potential environmental catastrophe in Leadville interests me, because the Leadville Mine Drain Tunnel used to be a regular stop for one of the CSU-Pueblo English classes.

An estimated 1.5 billion gallons of acidic mine drainage, laced with toxic levels of cadmium and zinc, is believed stopped up behind a collapse in the Bureau of Reclamation's Leadville Mine Drainage Tunnel, threatening to blow out the walls.

In the late 1990s, my colleague Margaret Barber and I taught parallel sections of English 102 (the how-to-write-a-research-paper course), and we focused them on environmental issues. Since so many students could not have told you where Pueblo's water came from, we would rent a big van and take as many as we could up to Leadville, where they got a quick tour of the old mining district.

The tour included the Yak Tunnel Superfund site and the Leadville Mine Drainage Tunnel, both long tunnels dug to de-water the deep silver and zinc mines. Both tunnels fed waterborne heavy metals into the Arkansas River -- and thus into the drinking supplies of Salida, Cañon City, Colorado Springs, Pueblo, and so on downstream.

Brad Littlepage, the Bureau of Reclamation's manager at the Leadville Mine Drainage Tunnel, would explain the fairly simple chemistry of precipitating out the metals to us at the treatment plant just north of town.

The kicker was that the work will have to be done forever. Forever. Until the mountains crumble or someone invents a permanent cure for water trickling down through the rocks, leaching out the cadmium, etc., and then draining through the tunnel conveniently provided in the 1940s, which drains into one fork of the Arkansas.

If it's not treated, watch out:

"Such a release," [Governor] Ritter wrote, "could result in the loss of life, cause untold human misery, threaten the drinking-water supplies for a half-million people, impact farmers and ranchers and leave the river and the recreation economy it also supports degraded for decades."


Peculiar said...

There's a nice graphic of the problem here:

Chas S. Clifton said...

Yep, that's the one that was with the article that I linked to, but if you look at the large version, it helps to show the scale of the problem.

gl. said...

ooooo! i wish i had tagged along on one of those fields trips. i had no idea.