Feds: water trapped in Leadville tunnel poses little risk | AspenTimes.com

Feds: water trapped in Leadville tunnel poses little risk

P. Solomon Banda
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

DENVER ” The estimated billion gallons of water trapped in a tunnel in the hills overlooking Leadville poses “no imminent public safety hazard,” despite the county’s emergency declaration over fears of a catastrophic blowout, according to a Bureau of Reclamation study.

A draft report released Monday said it’s “unlikely there would be a sudden release of water from the Leadville Mine Drainage Tunnel.” In a statement, the bureau said it evaluated the risk from the tunnel using a process similar to one used to assess the risk at its dams.

In declaring an emergency in February, Lake County commissioners feared the water trapped behind a collapse in the tunnel could blow at any moment with devastating effects, sweeping away mobile homes in the town of 2,600. The trapped water was enough to fill about 1,500 Olympic-size swimming pools.

County Commissioner Carl Schaefer said the report is a starting point for a discussion and doesn’t provide new information on the bureaucratic log jam that led to the backup of water over the years.

“It’s nice to have their specific finding of fact so we can dissolve that, chew on it, and have a discussion with regards to it,” Schaefer said.

The report found the tunnel roof collapse causing the blockage inside is stronger than first estimated and unlikely to suddenly fail and send a gush of water down the tunnel. It also found that even if the blockage failed, the force of the water would be insufficient to wash away a constructed bulkhead downstream.

Water from pressure building up inside the tunnel would likely seep into the ground if the blockage failed, according to the report.

An emergency plan is under way to drill a well into the tunnel and pipe water nearly a mile to the bureau’s water treatment plant at the mouth of the tunnel. The treatment plant is now treating about 2,100 gallons of water per minute, double the tunnel’s normal discharge of about 1,000 gallons per minute.

Bureau spokesman Peter Soeth said the emergency plan helps reduce an already low risk. A message left for a spokeswoman for the Environmental Protection Agency, which is responsible for a Superfund site in the area, was not immediately returned.

The two-mile long drainage tunnel was built in the 1940s and ’50s. It was meant to carry contaminated rainwater and snowmelt into the Arkansas River that had accumulated inside the miles of mine shafts that honeycomb inside the hills around the 10,200-foot-high Leadville 100 miles west of Denver.

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