The Subterranean Water Cannons of Leadville, Colorado

There was a fascinating article in the New York Times yesterday about a mine disaster just waiting to happen.

[Image: “Abandoned equipment stands in the snow near the top of an underground tunnel that was once used to drain mine water.” Photo by Kevin Moloney for The New York Times].

In Leadville, Colorado, we read, people now wake up every morning wondering if they “will be washed away by toxic water that local officials fear could burst from a decaying mine tunnel” on the edge of town.

For years, the federal Bureau of Reclamation and the Environmental Protection Agency have bickered over what to do about the aging tunnel, which stretches 2.1 miles and has become dammed by debris. The debris is holding back more than a billion gallons of water, much of it tainted with toxic levels of cadmium, zinc and manganese.

The article continues, describing the background for this “potentially catastrophic release of water”:

Abandoned mine shafts honeycomb the surrounding hillsides. The old drainage tunnel, built by the federal government in 1943 to drain hundreds of these shafts, began falling apart in the 1970s, causing water to pool. In 2005, the E.P.A. offered to start pumping the clogged water toward a Bureau of Reclamation plant, which treats the water flowing through the tunnel; but the bureau contended that the additional water was part of the E.P.A.’s Superfund cleanup responsibility.

And so nothing was done. The threat of “release” is now so great that property in the town can no longer be insured.
One wonders if it might be possible to build something like this deliberately, as a military tactic: a kind of long-delay, underground water cannon that only fires once, several decades after construction.
You leave a few dozen of these things lying around, beneath a terrain you have to evacuate… and so whenever your enemies move in, they’ve got some rather big problems beneath their feet.

12 thoughts on “The Subterranean Water Cannons of Leadville, Colorado”

  1. My cousin was born in Leadville when my uncle and aunt lived there in the 70s. My uncle worked as a mining engineer for the big molybdenum mine there. The town is a regular nice-looking un-ghosted Colorado mountain town, with some beautiful old buildings, all at 10,000 feet above sea level. And all, evidently, doomed.

  2. I can’t find a good reference for it quickly, but the Dutch opened up floodgates to halt the German advance in 1940.

    The German troops consequently had those rather big problems to contend with.

  3. Easiest method I can think of; a water pump, one or more large tanks, one or more sets of heavy-duty electrodes and as much electric current as you can draw from the grid there. Put water from the mine into the tanks with the electrodes, start the current. When the water becomes safe, empty into the nearest body of water, refill from the mine, repeat. The ingots of valuable metals can be sold to offset at least some of the cost of the treatment.

  4. Water runs downhill. And where is that? Denver. A billion gallons of water spills into the Arkansas River and rushes downstream obliterating everything in it’s path. Bridges? Highways?

    I saw this article. It does not mention the greater catastrophe that could happen next: this belly of water is tainted and the Arkansas River supplies Denver with it’s drinking water…

    Susan MacAdams

  5. What’s “perverted” about a water cannon, Sergeant Friday?

    And, Susan, the article – and this post – does say that the water is tainted, but its potential downstream interaction with Denver’s water supply isn’t mentioned. Interesting to hear that, though.

    Deepstructure, I owe you a drink…

  6. I was wrong. The Arkansas River runs through Pueblo, CO, not Denver. But the sudden release of water at Leadville will be devastating to the small towns downstream, Buena Vista, Salida, where much of the economy is based on the world class white water rafting.

    The drinking water in Denver is already tainted, from the North Platte River.

  7. When the Coors ad says ‘Made with pure Rocky Mountain spring water…’ you now know what they’re talking about.

    CO mining is full of problems. There’s a great deal of mining that’s occurring on public lands, at c. 1850s lease rates. The tailings pile up and become a public problem rather than a private one. No one can afford to clean it up. And now mines full of tainted water waiting to explode. Wonderous.

    See also Rocky Flats, where the creation of weapons in underground places was completely intentional. 🙂

  8. There was a fascinating article in the New York Times yesterday about a mine disaster just waiting to happen.

    Or maybe not. From the Feb 28, 2008 Rocky Mountain News, Leadville ‘disaster’ declaration releases cascade of dissent:

    “Lake County’s dramatic declaration nearly two weeks ago of a “disaster emergency” over water rising behind a clogged mine tunnel was not a move made in haste.

    Nor was it fashioned in public.

    For days, Lake County commissioners worked behind the scenes with state Sen. Tom Wiens, a Castle Rock Republican, to lay the groundwork for the emergency announcement.

    Wiens even set up a Web site – – four days ahead of the emergency declaration. It includes repeated references to Wiens’ role in heading off disaster. He appears in videos, stories and headlines such as “Federal and state agencies answer to Sen. Tom Wiens.”

    It was part of Wiens’ plan to use “every communications tool the 21st century provides” to get the story out, he said. He paid for it himself, spending “a few thousand dollars,” he said.

    But left out of the process was the entire community of Leadville: its mayor, its firefighters, its police department and many others, including scores of regulators with oversight of the area’s old mines and groundwater.

    Furthermore, Leadville officials, as well as several state and federal regulators, say they’re skeptical any disaster exists. They’re also weighing the impacts of the county’s actions, including, they said, cancellation of the city’s liability insurance.

    Residents of a modular-home community near the clogged tunnel also were taken by surprise. Since the announcement of an emergency, some have said they’re petrified that they could be swept away in the middle of the night by a raging river of escaping water.

    Leadville Mayor Bud Elliott said he is furious at Wiens and the commissioners, saying they “grossly mismanaged” the matter and accused them of “staging” the emergency.

    The fallout, he said, includes skiers canceling trips, collapsed real estate deals, and another black eye for a town still reeling from its inclusion as part of a Superfund cleanup site in the 1980s.

    “There were ways (to get the problem solved) short of causing panic,” Elliott said.”

    Of course, the locals in any sensationalized story are utterly oblivious of the looming disaster until it’s pointed out by the press. I’ll wager that Leadville itself has a little better historical perspective:

    In fact, groundwater is backed behind enormous stores of rock and debris, and is itself intermixed with soil and rock – much like water in a sponge. That makes it unlikely, experts say, that a burst of water will explode out of a hillside like a scene from a disaster film.

    “Even if a blowout happened, it wouldn’t happen like that at all,” Deckler said. “There’s a lot of water in the mountain, but (if it came out), it’s going to come out over the course of several days, not in an instant.”

    A similar “blowout” occurred at the Yak Tunnel in Leadville in 1983. But that “didn’t look like a flood at all,” Deckler said. Instead, flows increased from the tunnel three to five times its normal rate, the water was orange and it polluted the Arkansas River.

    “But in terms of a physical or safety hazard, I think we need to put some of that into perspective,” he said, echoing several state and federal regulators who expressed similar sentiments.

    Bad enough for the Arkansas River, but it’s not time to call Noah yet.

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