Monday, September 19, 2016

Leadville, Part IV: Cleaning the Mess the Miners Left Behind

Book Cover
Somewhat by chance, I learned about another chapter of Leadville’s story while we were there. One night we wandered into a place called the Book Mine, and I picked up a book called, Leadville: The Struggle to Revive an American Town by Gillian Klucas. Thinking the book might be an interesting read, I started in—and I was not disappointed. The author summarized Leadville’s “glorious” history as a mining boom town but spends much of her time delving into the "darker" side of Leadville’s mining: the environmental impact of what the mines left behind. (Leadville is just one of many places out west that has dealt with these impacts.)

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.
The author describes the long, complicated—and sometimes bitter—struggle to clean up the messes, that involved a number of parties including: the Environmental Protection Agency, the state of Colorado, the Principally Responsible Parties (e.g., the biggest mining company still in existence was the ASARCO mining company), and the “ordinary” citizens of the town. The debate was not only about who should be responsible for the cleanup—but even whether said cleanup was really needed. The town struggled with its sense of identity: Residents wanted to protect their legacy as a mining town.  They didn’t want to disturb and/or destroy more of the “relics” of the past than was necessary.


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
There is a National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum that provides a nice overview of Leadville's mining past. While some of the above-ground evidence  of Leadville's mining past still remains—see photos above—I think I would hard-pressed to find much physical evidence of the mines, tunnels, ditches, tailing piles, wedding cakes, or merlot ponds described in the book if I didn't know exactly where to look for them.  The EPA-cleanup, while controversial and bitterly contested at the beginning, seems to have been effective in doing what it set out to do: cleaning up the mess that mining left behind in Leadville and the surrounding vicinity.

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.  

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