LEADVILLE– Citizens here will continue to wait for the federal government to take responsibility for a mine drainage tunnel running through town and brimming with contaminated water.
A U.S. House bill ordering the Bureau of Reclamation to pump and clean the contaminated water in the Leadville Mine Drainage Tunnel was voted down Tuesday, largely by Democrats, including two from Colorado, in what observers suggest looked like clear political gamesmanship.
Republicans contend the bill—sponsored by Colorado Fifth District Republican Doug Lamborn—fell victim to Democratic retaliation.
Earlier in the evening, Lamborn led Republicans in voting down another bill, HR 324, which would have established a Santa Cruz Valley National Heritage Area in Arizona. The bill was sponsored by Arizona Democrat Raúl Grijalva (widely considered frontrunner for Secretary of the Interior before the spot went to Colorado’s Ken Salazar).
Lamborn spoke vehemently against the Arizona bill, arguing that private property owned in the area under consideration required exemption from the proposed site. He also argued that the area included human and narcotics trafficking routes. A federal wilderness designation, he contended, would allow cartels to “run rampant” among Border Patrol agents “hamstrung by draconian rules.”
The bill was shot down, opposed by 145 Republicans and no Democrats.
Shortly thereafter, Democrats voted down Lamborn’s Leadville Mine Drainage Tunnel Remediation Act of 2009. One hundred eighty-four Democrats voted against the bill, along with seven Republicans.
Of the Colorado Representatives in the House, Democrats Ed Perlmutter of the Seventh District and Third District Rep. John Salazar broke with their caucus and joined Lamborn and Sixth District Rep. Mike Coffman in voting for the bill.
“As always, I vote for the interests of Coloradans,” said Perlmutter in a statement. “I want to see the best outcome for the people of Leadville and Colorado and that means a safe mine tunnel and water supply. I can’t speak for other members of Congress and why they did or didn’t support this bill.”
Eric Wortman, spokesman for Salazar, said, “Congressman Salazar understands the seriousness of the situation for the community and wants to work to resolve it as quickly as possible.”
First District Democrat Diana DeGette and Fourth District Democrat Betsy Markey joined their caucus in voting against the bill.
DeGette’s spokesman Kristofer Eisenla wrote in an email that DeGette supported the bill but had problems with the procedure by which the bill was brought to a vote. The bill passed the House last year on a voice vote and was brought up this year under suspension of the rules, a time-saving procedure reserved for non-controversial bills.
“U.S. Rep. DeGette had concerns about the bill under suspension of the rules, but plans to support it under regular order,” Eisenla wrote.
Asked for more specifics about what her concerns were about the bill coming up under suspension, Eisenla said: “She thinks the bill should come up under regular order, through the regular floor process, rather than suspension of the rules. It’s a procedural concern. … There are some differences between the House and Senate versions, and the Congresswoman thinks we can get to a quicker resolution through regular order.”
Ben Marter, spokesman for Markey, concurred.
“Congresswoman Markey will vote for the measure when it comes up under regular order. There are differences between the House bill and the Senate bill, and she just feels that the problem can be better solved by bringing the bill up under regular order.”
According to a tweet that night, Second District Democrat Jared Polis was flying back to Washington during the vote.
Asked if the Democratic shut-out was in response to Lamborn’s charge against Grijalva’s Santa Cruz Valley bill, a Democratic leadership aide responded: “I really don’t have any further information at this point, other than we’re working with the committee to bring it back.”
But Jill Strait, Republican Press Secretary for the House Natural Resources Committee, contended the vote was a clear act of retaliation.
“Democrats took an eye-for-an eye approach,” she argued. “Because a Democrat bill was defeated under suspension, they turned around and defeated a Republican bill. House passed an almost identical bill last Congress by voice vote. No one spoke against it on the House floor last night. It appears that Democrats who voted against the bill had no substantive disagreement with it, but were motivated by hyper-partisanship.”
The Leadville Mine Drainage Tunnel bill is one of the last legislative mop-ups after the Lake County Commissioners declared a state of emergency in the town in February 2008. Local officials argued that the pool of contaminated water trapped by collapses in the tunnel was an immediate threat to the lives and well-being of Lake County citizens.
The tunnel, built by the Bureau of Mines to drain Leadville’s mines for the war effort, was begun during World War II. In 1959, the Bureau of Reclamation purchased the tunnel as a water source. It later discovered that the water flowing from the tunnel was contaminated, and by 1992, it had built a plant to treat the water at the mouth of the tunnel. The collapses have prevented much of this mine drainage from reaching the plant.
In response to the Lake County Commissioners’ 2008 emergency declaration, Reclamation agreed to treat water pumped from behind the blockage on a temporary basis—but argued that it did not have the authority to do so in perpetuity.
A 2008 bill to give the federal agency that responsibility— H.R. 5511, introduced by Rep. Mark Udall and Lamborn—passed in the House, but was never taken up by the Senate.
In July 2009, Udall, now a senator, and Lamborn introduced S.1417 in a second attempt to assign responsibility to the Bureau of Reclamation. The Senate has not yet voted on Udall’s bill.