June 20, 2008

House Orders Federal Fix of Mine Tunnel in Leadville

By Hector Gutierrez

Congress moved one step closer Thursday to finding a long-term fix to a blocked mine drainage tunnel in Leadville that some local officials and residents fear could rupture with catastrophic consequences.

The House passed a bill directing the secretary of the Interior, who oversees the Bureau of Reclamation, to immediately take responsibility for fixing the problems at the Leadville Mine Drainage Tunnel.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs, and Rep. Mark Udall, D-Eldorado Springs, now goes to the Senate, where Sen. Ken Salazar is working on similar legislation.

"What I can say is the senator is working with the chair of the energy committee and his colleagues to move the bill forward in the Senate," said Stephanie Valencia, Salazar's spokeswoman.

The plan calls for erecting a bulkhead to isolate contaminated water and building wells and pipelines to send the water to a treatment plant. The Bureau of Reclamation also would manage the pool of water behind the bulkhead to reduce the potential for a tunnel breakdown in case of overwhelming water pressure.

"I am proud that Congress has taken action to address this safety concern and voted to prevent a possible future catastrophe," Lamborn said in a statement after the House vote.

Lake County commissioners issued warnings in February that a "catastrophic failure" could occur if the plugged mine drainage tunnel were to burst.

Such a rupture would release millions of gallons of toxic water, flooding nearby homes and contaminating the Arkansas River, they said.

Some environmental experts and local officials have questioned whether such a scenario could occur, and criticized the commissioners for creating a doomsday picture.

The Environmental Protection Agency has constructed a pipeline behind a blockage to divert water to a treatment plant as part of a short-term relief effort.

Lake County Commissioner Michael Hickman said the Bureau of Reclamation began accepting water this week in the EPA pipeline.

"We'll probably get daily updates on that as far as how the pumping's going," he said. "We're past the snow runoff. The peak has come and gone, and we haven't had any ramifications from that."

Originally published by Hector Gutierrez, Rocky Mountain News.

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