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Backed-up toxic water threatens Colo. town

A billion gallons of toxic water is trapped in a collapsed drainage tunnel above Leadville, Colo., and could blow at any moment, threatening homes and the town's historic center.
Mining Town Threatened
Gary Turner stands in front of a brook near his home in Leadville, Colo., on Wednesday. Water from a collapsed drainage tunnel flows into the brook, posing a threat to nearby homes.Will Powers / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Emergency sirens and loudspeakers have been tested and sensors installed. Bulldozers have cut an escape route. Townspeople have been warned to assemble "grab-it-and-go" kits with first aid supplies, water, flashlights and blankets.

A concealed threat is hanging over this old Wild West mining town: A billion gallons of toxic water is trapped in a collapsed drainage tunnel in the hills overlooking Leadville and could blow at any moment with devastating effect, sweeping away mobile homes in the town of 2,600.

"I'm scared. It could happen while the kids are at school, when I'm home by myself or when we're asleep," said Kathy Medina, a homemaker in this winter tourist town lined with Victorian-era brick buildings, old-time saloons and an opera house where Harry Houdini, John Philip Sousa and Oscar Wilde performed.

The danger is a legacy of Leadville's long-gone boom years. Between the mid-1800s and the 1990s, gold, silver, lead, zinc and finally molybdenum, a substance used to harden steel, were extracted from the ground around this 10,200-foot-high town 100 miles west of Denver.

In the 1940s and '50s, the federal government built a two-mile mine drainage tunnel to carry off contaminated rainwater and snowmelt into the Arkansas River. But a tunnel collapse that was detected in 1995 caused water to back up behind the rubble.

Because of years of bickering between the state and the federal government over what to do about the buildup and who would assume responsibility for it, nothing was done and the water kept rising, finally prompting nervous Lake County officials to declare a state of emergency on Feb. 13.

"We're at wits' end," said county Commissioner Carl Schaefer. "It's like the San Andreas Fault. Everybody knows that California is going to slip into the Pacific someday. You can't do anything about the San Andreas Fault, but we can do something about this."

Spring melt feared
Officials believe enough water to fill 1,500 Olympic swimming pools has pooled inside the tunnel, and they fear that the spring melt from some of the heaviest snow cover on record this winter could increase the pressure and finally cause a rupture.

Commissioners said the water could burst through the collapsed rock and blow out through the tunnel's 15-foot mouth or find a way through the hillside with enough force to mimic the 1976 failure of the Teton Dam in Idaho. In that disaster, some 80 billion gallons of water came crashing down the Snake River in a wall that destroyed thousands of homes and killed 11 people.

Commissioners said water laden with toxic heavy metals such as cadmium, lead and mercury could wash over the northern edge of town, carrying off mobile homes in a trailer park where 300 people live. Officials also fear the water could touch off landslides that could damage Leadville's historic downtown area.

Several schools could also get hit, either by the floodwaters or a landslide, officials said.

Mayor Bud Elliott said he believes a blowout would be less dramatic, probably resembling a robust stream of orange water colored by rust and other metals.

Within a week of the emergency declaration, commissioners were sitting down with Republican Sen. Wayne Allard and officials at the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and a plan to ease the danger began taking shape.

Pumping has begun
On Wednesday, the EPA began pumping water out of a nearby shaft to try to relieve pressure on the tunnel. In about five weeks, the EPA will drill into the tunnel and pump water directly out of it.

"I'm angry. No, I'm damn angry," said county Commissioner Mike Hickman. "I have three heads of federal agencies here who I'd like to call The Three Stooges. Three years ago they knew what the problem was." Of the emergency declaration, he said: "It's a shame that we need to come to this sort of display to get the attention of these federal agencies."

Not everyone here was thrilled with the emergency declaration. The mayor said it came as a surprise to city officials, who later learned that the city's liability insurance carrier was canceling its policy.

People walk down Main Street in Leadville, Colo., on Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2008. The historic mining town is being threatened by water backed up in a collapsed drainage tunnel. Officials began slowly draining the water on Wednesday, Feb. 27.P. Solomon Banda / AP

"All they were doing was patting each other on their backs as far as what a good idea they had in declaring an emergency," Elliott said. "There were a lot of things they could have done before going to Defcon 9."

Officials are taking precautions, installing sensors inside the tunnel they hope will give a 24-hour warning of a catastrophic blowout. They have also bulldozed a backwoods escape route and asked townspeople to fill out registration forms in case they have to be rescued.

Sales of bottled water are up at the supermarket, and worried visitors to Leadville — the site of a winter festival and the storied Leadville Trail 100, a running and cycling race at a lung-searing elevation — have called town officials to ask about the danger.

Still, "nobody's evacuating, nobody's building an ark. We're not worried," said Heather Scanlon, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce. "Leadville is a strong, resilient town."

Debbie Turner, who along with her husband manages a mobile home park at the mouth of the tunnel and enjoys a spectacular panoramic view of 14,000-foot Rocky Mountain peaks, has yet to put together an emergency kit, despite the urging of the government.

"If that thing starts going, hell, I'll just take off," Turner said. "I'm not fooling myself."