LEADVILLE — To outsiders, the amber hills of piled up mine waste, or tailings, that mark the countryside here are just part of the dramatic mountain scenery. But they’re the subject of a new round in a long conflict between historic preservationists and environmentalists.
To some long-time Leadville residents and state preservationists, the tailings piles are a valuable part of a distinct local history, a symbol of the great gold and silver booms of the past. To the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, though, they are poison, the refuse of a century and more of industrial extraction that, despite decades spent on clean-up efforts, is still leaching heavy metals like zinc and cadmium into area water, putting the Arkansas River and downstream communities and wildlife at risk.
This summer, the EPA announced it wanted to scrap its old failed and compromised efforts and start again. The new plan (pdf) has re-ignited an old battle.
An historically sensitive solution
In 1997, under pressure from media, including NBC Nightly News, as well as from citizens, preservationists and state representatives, incredulous EPA authorities agreed to leave several remaining tailings piles in the Leadville Mining District in place, divert most runoff around them, and send any contaminated runoff down Stray Horse Gulch, into an old mine shaft and through a series of convoluted mine workings to a treatment plant on the other side of town.
But in the intervening years, according to EPA Remedial Project Manager Stan Christensen, dye tracer tests have shown that not all the 300 to 500 million gallons of contaminated water generated each year actually makes it to the plant. Depending on the day, the plant recovers somewhere between 12 percent and 75 percent of the contaminated water that comes its way, he said. No one is sure where the rest of the water goes.
The EPA also expects the transport system to eventually fail altogether.
“Over time, the structural integrity and the general competency of all tunnels and underground mine workings will continue to deteriorate without regular maintenance,” states an EPA handout on the issue. The flyer reports that agency workers have no way to access the old mine tunnels in order to perform maintenance.
In June of this year, the EPA returned to the community with a proposal to consolidate and “cap” the offending tailings piles in order to prevent snowmelt and rain from flowing through the waste rock and becoming acid mine drainage.
In a compromise with Leadville residents who want to preserve the piles, Officials have said they are willing to cap the piles in place, then work to make them look dirty and authentic — a sort of outdoor museum of mining waste.
“Can we make it look like mine waste?” wondered Doug Jamison, project manager with the Colorado Department of Health and the Environment, which works in tandem with the EPA at the Superfund site. Driving through the tailings piles in the mining district, Jamison and his EPA counterparts explained that they plan to cap a test pile in Little Stray Horse Gulch this fall with several different materials, so residents and preservationists can view the options. Potential cover materials include “clean” mine waste and even Shotcrete — a weak concrete that can be sprayed and then carved and colored to look like an authentic tailings pile, Jamison explained.
“It won’t be cheap, but I don’t know if it will be any more expensive than other options.”
So far, there has been no strong reaction from the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) and Colorado Preservation, Inc., both of whom played a role in stopping the 1997 capping. In 1998, citing the EPA’s proposed remedies, Colorado Preservation, Inc., listed the Leadville Mining District as one of Colorado’s ten most endangered historic sites.
”The Leadville Mining District is a national treasure, and we are concerned that the EPA’s new plans may negatively impact the remaining historic fabric – in particular the waste rock piles,” wrote Jonas Landes, coordinator of the endangered places program for CPI, in an email. But he added that the agency was pleased by the EPA’s willingness to involve both Leadville citizens and the preservation community in designing the new remedy.
“It’s premature,” explained Dan Corson, intergovernmental services director for SHPO. “We need to get a better handle on the nature of the problem and what the alternatives may be before we would be able to offer our comments.”
But Leadville citizen Bill Klauber, speaking for the Superfund Citizens’ Advisory Group, argued that the EPA may not need to cap the piles. Klauber suggested the agency could first try several new drainage techniques that are less-expensive and less-intrusive. But so far, the Citizens’ Advisory Group has been frustrated by the EPA’s unwillingness to consider the idea, he said.
“I very much want the EPA in there doing a good job. All I’m trying to do is influence it to make sure it comes out well.”
But Lake County Commissioner Mike Bordogna worries that the current Citizens’ Advisory Group, composed of five long-time Leadville citizens, doesn’t represent Leadville’s changing demographics.
In the last several decades, this modern-day mining town has begun to house workers for the nearby resort towns and young families who find it an affordable place to buy a home. Not all the newcomers are pleased about the acid mine drainage running down Stray Horse Gulch.
Bordogna and Leadville mayor Bud Elliott are currently trying to create a much larger and diverse Community Advisory Group, hoping that such a group could more accurately represent the diversity of citizen opinion to the EPA. The EPA has agreed to fund a facilitator, advertising and meeting space for the group.
“I think they have some great ideas,” said Bordogna. “But I think they’re falling on deaf ears, because they’re no longer representative of the community.”
Klauber added that some people believe there is irreconcilable conflict between the original group and the EPA. He wondered whether the EPA hasn’t agreed to facilitate a new group in the hopes that it will be more agreeable.
“We’ve had some rough moments,” he admitted, citing one parade in which a Citizen’s Advisory Group member dragged a dummy labeled “EPA” down Leadville’s main street, beating it the entire way.
But after four years of trying, he’s not entirely confident the EPA will really listen to any Leadville citizens.
“I hope this new [group] actually has some effective input with the EPA,” he said. “But you know, I’m not holding my breath.”