Leadville flood fears may be overblown | AspenTimes.com

Leadville flood fears may be overblown

Katie Redding
Leadville correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

LEADVILLE, Colo. ” Three weeks into Lake County’s state of emergency, as the science begins to settle out of the politics, it appears some officials’ fear of a catastrophic spill from the Leadville Mine Drainage Tunnel were overblown.

The officials were right to want to fix the tunnel, say experts ” but for some of the wrong reasons.

In the first few days of the state of emergency, Lake County commissioners and state Sen. Tom Wiens said the above-average snowpack would lead to huge volumes of water infiltrating the mine pool in the spring.

However, according to a 2006 study done by Environmental Protection Agency groundwater expert Mike Wireman and others, it takes anywhere from five to 15 years for snow to make its way to the tunnel.

Thus, the chances that this year’s snowfall will lead to a significant rise in the mine pool this spring is highly unlikely. Also, the mine pool is always highest in the fall and lowest in the spring, according to the study.

In fact, said Wireman, the tunnel’s high water level has been rising by about 10 feet every year since officials began taking measurements in 2005 ” always in the fall.

The commissioners also argued that the blockage in the tunnel was directly contributing to an increase in the mine pool (a spongelike mixture of dirt and water well below the earth’s surface)–and that the growing mine pool could cause a collapse and flood the east side of town with toxic water.

The contention led to the now-famous Associated Press headline “Town fears avalanche of contaminated water,” in addition to a run on flood insurance from local property owners.

But Wireman thinks the connection between the mine pool and the tunnel has been overstated.

He does agree that if water enters the tunnel and is blocked, some of it may find its way to the mine pool.

“But I don’t believe that’s very much at all,” he said.

If Leadville experiences any land movement related to mine pool levels, it would be in the way of small sinkholes, he says.

“You’re not looking at 50 acres collapsing.”

Perhaps the only thing not being questioned is whether or not the tunnel needs to be fixed. Wireman explained that all involved need to consider only two things ” that water in the tunnel is rising and that tunnel grows older each day.

“I think they’re [the commissioners] are right to raise concern. The risk is increasing with time,” says Wireman.

But as for scientific missteps by government officials, Wireman is careful not to lay blame.

“They’re not scientists,” he points out.

But Leadville resident and hydrogeologist Kato Dee thinks the commissioners should have been more careful to use well-proven facts. He worries, for example, that once the tunnel issues are resolved, Leadville will be forced to defend itself against concerns about water quality in the Arkansas River.

When people bring tenuous scientific evidence into a discussion, he said, they generally open up more cans of worms than they meant to.