House orders feds to clean-up Leadville tunnel

Rep. Lamborn
Rep. Lamborn

Partisan games were finally put to rest on Tuesday, as a long overdue environmental clean-up bill for Leadville, Colo., passed the U.S. House of Representatives on a voice vote.

The Leadville Mine Drainage Remediation Act of 2009, HR 3123, sponsored by Colorado Republican Doug Lamborn of the 5th District, would order the federal Bureau of Reclamation to take responsibility for the entire length of the Leadville Mine Drainage Tunnel, which drains zinc, cadmium and lead-laced water from many of Leadville’s historic mines.

“We’re ecstatic that we’ve made it through the House again,” said Lake County Commissioner Ken Olsen.

On September 8, the bill was voted down, largely by Democrats, in what observers say was a case of political retaliation. Bill sponsor Lamborn had earlier led Republicans in voting down HR 324, the Santa Cruz Valley National Heritage Act, sponsored by Arizona Democrat Raúl Grijalva.

In rejecting Grijalva’s bill, Lamborn cited immigration concerns. He contended that a federal wilderness designation for the Arizona land would allow lawless cartels to “run rampant” among Border Patrol agents “hamstrung by draconian rules.”

So Republicans voted the bill down. And Democrats retaliated.

“If you’re going to play games on something that is noncontroversial, and you make it controversial, then I don’t think we can idly stand by and not have a corresponding response,” Grijalva told the Energy and Environment Daily, a legislation trade publication shortly after the vote.

Last week, Grijalva relented to Republican pressure and agreed to add an amendment to HR 324 stating that enforcement activities would not be impeded by the establishment of the heritage area—though he argued that the amendment was unnecessary.

“There are no restrictions, express or implied, on the activities of Federal, state or local law enforcement,” wrote Grijalva in a statement about the bill. “Nor is there anything in the management history of heritage areas over the past quarter of a century that would lead any rational person to conclude that these areas somehow supercede the authorities of law enforcement officials at any level. This allegation is simply fear-mongering.”

Although 142 Republicans voted against Grijalva’s bill on Sept. 23—including Colorado U.S. Reps Lamborn and Mike Coffman—it passed.

The Leadville bill was then put back on the agenda, and passed in a voice vote on Tuesday.

The Leadville Mine Drainage Tunnel bill comes as a late legislative mop-up in the matter, trailing already a year and a half after 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 residents.

The tunnel, built by the Bureau of Mines to drain Leadville’s mines for the war effort, was purchased by the Bureau of Reclamation in 1959. The Bureau soon discovered the tunnel’s water was contaminated, and by 1992, a Sierra Club lawsuit had compelled it to build a treatment plant the mouth of the tunnel. But collapses in the have prevented much of this mine drainage from reaching the plant.

In response to the Lake County commissioners’ 2008 emergency declaration, the Bureau of Reclamation agreed to treat water pumped from behind the blockages 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 then-U.S. Rep. Mark Udall and Lamborn — passed in the House, but was never taken up by the Senate.

In July 2009, Udall, now a U.S. senator, and Lamborn, introduced S.1417 and HR 3123 in a second attempt to assign responsibility to the Bureau of Reclamation.

“[The bills] designate responsibility of the entire tunnel length to Bureau of Reclamation,” explained Olsen.

The bill also directs the Bureau to work with the Environmental Protection Agency to treat additional water from the Superfund site. The Bureau has done so in the past, but alleged that it does not have the authority to treat the water in perpetuity.

But Olsen had no patience for federal agencies who won’t use their already-built plant to treat nearby contaminated water.

“The plant is made to treat contaminated water entering the Arkansas River,” he insisted. “It’s a public plant.”

Olsen added that he was “extremely hopeful” that Senators Udall and Bennet would be able to secure passage of S. 1417 in the Senate.

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