Thursday, February 28, 2008


I want to recommend Dan Frosch's article in the Times about mine water in Leadville, Colorado.

Leadville is one of the most disturbing places in America. It is an old mining town that still holds on to that identity today. In the late 19th century, as a silver boom sprung up in the town, Leadville was one of the largest cities in Colorado. Oscar Wilde performed there. It seemed like the town would rise to great heights. But then the boom ended and poverty set in.

But residents struggled with more than just poverty. They also dealt with massive environmental problems. Tailings piles dotted the city and were favorite places for kids to play on. Those tailings piles were covered in lead and other heavy metals and toxins.

Every now and again, out of the mines would belch tons of toxic water. Usually that water would would more or less stay in the mines but eventually it would get caught behind some old mine equipment, fallen timbers, or other obstacles, until the pressure grew to great and it would break the obstruction. Then, a flood of orange and red water would rush into the Arkansas River, causing fish kills for miles and poisoning the river as far away as Pueblo, about 100 miles away.

Eventually, the Environmental Protection Agency got involved, declaring the whole town a Superfund site in 1983. You would think that the local residents would appreciate someone coming in to clean up this poison. You would be quite wrong. Rather, the residents took EPA cleanup efforts as an attack on their mining heritage. The EPA brought some of this on themselves. Annoyed by a lack of cooperation from locals, they sent out a flyer to Leadville homeowners saying they were going to go in and replace their lawns, which of course really pissed off the locals. Then, at a public meeting, EPA scientists explained how children playing on tailings piles could cause slower mental growth. Rather than stopping their kids from playing on the piles, Leadville residents got angry because, after all, "We played on those piles! Are you calling us stupid?" The first picture above is of tailings piles from the Matchless Mine, just above Leadville.

Finally, after more than 15 years of lawsuits, meetings, and intense fights, the EPA managed to clean up Leadville to a reasonable extent. They moved most of the in-town tailing piles to a giant pile just outside of town. They tried to capture as much of the water as possible before it reached the Arkansas. Today, you can see some of this water. If you go above Leadville, you run into what they call "wedding cakes." These are rather poorly conceived capped tailing piles that are safe, but look really stupid. They were supposed to capture the look of the old historic tailings piles. They don't. Anyway, near them are little ponds. They are called "merlot ponds." Why? Because the water is the color of red wine. It's really scary. The picture at the top is of a merlot pond. Unfortunately, it comes from the Free Republic website, but it's all I could find.

It's impossible to capture all the water. There are so many old mine shafts underneath Leadville that are filled with chemicals and other mining-related nastiness. It is this water that's about to explode out of the mine shafts and flood the town before draining into the Arkansas.

Of course, most of the residents of Leadville don't want to talk about this. I can't emphasize enough what a strange town Leadville is. The only comparison I can make is Butte, Montana. Both of these places are mining towns through and through. The residents have never wanted to admit that mining is dead. They resist outsiders and any economic diversification. Finally, in recent years both Butte and Leadville have begun welcoming tourists. They are both potential markets for real estate booms because they are in beautiful mountainous locations, although they are both deeply scarred by mining and are basically environmental catastrophes. But this economic transformation hasn't happened yet. Now that they economy is tanking, it could be a long time.

However, I recommend having a couple of drinks at the Silver Dollar Saloon, mentioned in the article. Not only is it a funky old place, but drinks at nearly 11,000 feet have an extra effect.