Leadville water backup result of failed ownership transfer
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado
DENVER ” A billion gallons of water in a tunnel that threatens the city of Leadville backed up because of a failed proposal to transfer ownership of the tunnel and a water treatment plant to the state, which balked over a responsibility that could last forever.
Bureau of Reclamation Regional Director Mike Ryan on Thursday said plan is still on the table as they search for a longterm solution to water in the Leadville Mine Drainage Tunnel.
Ryan said when the bureau acquired the 2.1-mile tunnel in 1959, they made it clear they never intended to maintain it.
“We felt we told everybody that,” Ryan said.
Meanwhile, the plan to transfer the $20 million water treatment plant and give the state $ 30 million in operating costs for 40 years delayed the Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to drain the tunnel.
A collapse inside the tunnel first detected in 1995 was allowing water to back up in hundreds of mine shafts that date back nearly 150 years. The area is part of a Superfund site managed by the EPA, which hatched a plan to plug the tunnel, drill into it, then pump water out and send it down a pipe to the treatment plant built in 1992.
When first detected, water in the mining pool was at about 110 feet above its natural level and it has since climbed to 188 feet.
The BOR balked at treating the EPA’s water because it’s authorized to treat only the water coming out of the tunnel, not anything pumped to the plant. After years of negotiations, the bureau in 2004 floated the idea of transferring the tunnel and the plant to the state.
State officials became involved when they wanted to divert water from a tailings pile into the tunnel for treatment.
Intermittent negotiations still were under way when Lake County declared its emergency last week.
“It’s a huge responsibility that we didn’t want,” said Jeffrey Deckler, remedial programs manager at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, who led the negotiations. While the BOR looked at operating costs for 40 years, Deckler said their assumptions were based on operating the tunnel and plant for 100 years, maybe longer.
“Whenever we talk about treating mining waste, we’re talking into perpetuity,” Deckler said.
He later added: “They held that hostage, I believe.”
EPA Regional Director Robert Roberts on Thursday announced the agency will spend $1.5 million for an emergency plan to dewater the tunnel.
The plan originally was developed in 2005, but it didn’t get done because the BOR wouldn’t treat the water being piped 7,000 feet to its plant at the mouth of the tunnel.
After years of legal wrangling, the BOR agreed to treat it last week.
“I don’t think we’ll have any problems,” Ryan said during a public meeting.
Roberts said it would take six weeks for the agency to mobilize, and another six weeks before they could start pumping water ” slightly more than earlier estimates.
A meeting at the state Capitol arranged by Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) brought together Roberts and Ryan, as well as John Kainard, Division Head of Disaster Assistance for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
At 10,152 feet and touted as the highest incorporated city in America, nobody ever thought Leadville’s 2,600 residents would be in danger of flooding.
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