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Paul Andersen: Skiing Leadville’s deadly mine dumps

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

Fluffy flakes fluttered from the frosty firmament, drifting lazily on the still air, spilling from a dark, gray sky, filtering through lodge pole pines, settling in thick pillows over rounded humps of a voluptuous landscape.

The scene could not have been more beautiful on a winter day at 10,200 feet on the outskirts of Leadville, the true sister city to Aspen. These cities are linked by the common heritage of mining. Where Aspen has distanced itself from that past, Leadville has not.

These man-made mounds are deadly, not so much for potential avalanche, but for the long-term toxicity they hold within. The risks these mine tailings represent run far into the future as my old compadre and mentor, the late Bob Lewis, graphically pointed out decades ago.

In his film, “Down Wind, Down Stream,” Lewis, an Aspen biologist who trained at Camp Hale in the 10th Mountain Division, portrayed mine dumps as time bombs. Held by earthen dams at the headwaters of the largest mountain river systems, mine dumps are an ecological Sword of Damocles.

We were ski touring across them last week along the Mineral Belt Trail, a byway for summer biking and winter skiing that circumnavigates Leadville. The trail passes through vast mining districts that flourished as far back as the late 1850s. Today, reminders of the industrial past jut prominently into the present.

Drive northeast of this old industrial city to Fremont Pass and you’ll have a sobering view of industrial mining. Near the top of the pass, the Climax molybdenum mine is a monument to the largest of Leadville’s iconic mining wastelands.

Mount Bartlett stands as a jagged glory hole. Half the mountain has been carved away, ground up into powder, sorted with chemicals and separated out into the marketable gray froth of molybdenum disulfide that rises from bubbling tanks to be skimmed, dried, sealed into steel drums and converted for steel used in everything from bicycles to missile nose cones.

Some 600 million tons of low-grade moly ore have been mined here over the past century. The vast majority of that material is left as waste, which is slurried into tailings ponds held in place by earthen plugs bigger than the Aswan Dam.

All this toxicity is hanging over the headwaters of the Arkansas, which provides water for Front Range growth, development, agriculture and a long riverine system stretching to the Mississippi. Such sacrifice zones to the Industrial Age reveal in stark enormity where man has plundered the earth for the needs, wants and waste of contemporary life.

The toxicity of Leadville’s tailings dumps is the result of sulfurous deposits that also yielded heavy metals — silver, zinc and lead. Hence “Lead”ville. When mixed with water and air, sulfur creates sulfuric acid that dissolves heavy metals that infiltrate and rend lifeless streams and riparian ecosystems that are the basis of the food chain in mountain ecosystems.

Skiing “The Dumps” on Aspen Mountain offers a similar perspective as these smoothly rounded ski runs are reminders of mining that once polluted the Roaring Fork River. The Superfund cleanup program of the 1980s isolated some of the dumps in Aspen proper, but across Colorado there are thousands of untreated leavings from over a century ago.

A recent report from Reuters in the aftermath of an unnatural disaster that killed over 300 people in Brazil warned of “how mining companies store billions of tons of waste in huge dams, where about a tenth of the structures have had stability issues.”

That report is sending out the alarm about potentially catastrophic floods when these abandoned dams fail. Only secondarily is there concern for the pollution that follows when tailings enter the environment. The report states that the United States has the most tailings dams of any country in the world, many of which wreak unchecked havoc on the environment.

Anyone who uses metals is culpable, and that means each of us as we benefit from mining and industry. I was surprised to find molybdenum as an ingredient in the protein powder I use in my daily smoothies.

In Leadville, it’s all there to see — deep under the drifting snow.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at andersen@rof.net.


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