Leadville’s troubles became national news in 1983, when one of the old mining tunnels that were used to carry waste away from the mines [shown below] gave way spilling huge amounts of waste water into the nearby Arkansas River. The opening scene of the book is presented from the perspective of a long-time resident of the area named Doc Smith who lives on a ranch along the Arkansas River. She describes the fateful morning when the river “ran red" from Doc's perspective.
Of course this wasn't the first time a spill had happened in this area. What made this time different was the size of the spill. This release was so large that it threatened the water supply of more heavily populated areas downstream, such as Colorado Springs and Aurora (a suburb of Denver), which drew national attention to the residue the mines and smelters of the Leadville Mining District left behind (e.g. lead, heavy metals in the soil and water) in a way that previous spills had not. Later that year, Leadville was designated a Superfund site, beginning an effort to clean up the "mess" mining left behind that would play out over several decades.
|We did trek out to what appeared to be a mine entrance|
located just outside Leadville. I have no idea which mine this was.
Time did not allow for deeper investigation while we were there.
However, the Mining History Association has many more photos posted
online from a tour of the Leadville Mining District conducted in 2007.
|The Yak Tunnel entrance as it appeared in 2002—after EPA-mandated clean-up.|
This 3.5 mile long tunnel was used to haul ore and drain the mines
in the area; this was the tunnel that ruptured in 1983, spilling contaminated
water down California Gulch into the Arkansas River and bringing
national attention to Leadville's "mining mess" Image credit: Mining History Association.
Klucas weaves a fascinating tale bringing together some of the town’s history with anecdotes and quotes from some of the people (e.g., local politicians, EPA officials, land owners) who were actually involved in the controversy. Early on the relationship between EPA officials assigned to Leadville and townsfolk was contentious to say the least. They were viewed as unwanted government intruder into Leadville’s affairs. Thanks in part to a change in the EPA leadership, eventually the town and EPA learned how to work together and work to clean up Leadville proceeded more smoothly than it had before. By 2011, EPA considered the area “cleaned up”—though pregnant women are still encouraged to have their lead levels carefully monitored.
|The museum was dedicated in 1987.|
|National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum. Leadville, CO|
As with many places where industry once reigned but has since moved on in this country, the physical evidence is “cleaned up” long before the potential environmental and public health impacts diminish. Those longer-term impacts may very well still be present today. The damage done to the land, water, and air, wildlife, and to the lives of people who lived here, by mining is much harder to quantify or to put a price-tag on—which was why the argument between Leadville and the EPA was so intense.
Had I not happened into that bookstore the day we were there and read this book, I would never have known about this chapter in Leadville’s story. And yet is an important chapter, not just in Leadville’s story but in America’s story. Klucas makes it clear in her book that this wasn’t just a Leadville issue—it was and is an American issue. When the book was written in 2004, there were 500,000 abandoned mining sites in the U.S., 300,000 of them in the west—23,000 in Colorado alone. By one estimate 40% of the watersheds in the West were at risk for contamination.
They say those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it. What then should we learn from Leadville?