Colorado Mining Town Residents Aren’t Rushing to Get the Lead Out : Health: Many in Leadville believe hazards are exaggerated. They resent efforts of government agencies.
Smack in the middle of one of Earth’s richest ore deposits is Leadville, a gritty mining town that binged for more than a century on gold, silver, lead, zinc and molybdenum.
The Rocky Mountain gold rush of 1859 brought the first settlers, who founded nearby Oro City. The discovery of silver and lead in 1877 gave birth to Leadville, whose population ballooned to 30,000 by 1900. In 1910, prospectors found zinc, and in 1924, molybdenum.
But the party days of the ore rushes have ended.
Leadville, now living off its boomtown memories, is coping with a hangover--the pollution left over after 130 years of intense mining.
The town, which now has a population of 3,800, is a 16-square-mile Superfund site, along with California Gulch, the ravine where thousands of mines produced billions of dollars in minerals.
Worse, a recent study shows high concentrations of lead in the blood of Leadville schoolchildren, raising the specter of lead poisoning and possible learning disabilities. The town and the four companies involved in the Superfund cleanup have embarked on an intensive program to gauge the extent of the problem. Results are expected next year.
Townspeople are angry--chiefly at the Environmental Protection Agency.
“It’s a very difficult thing to talk to people about,” said the EPA’s Ken Wangerud. He heads the Leadville and California Gulch Superfund cleanup.
“I’ve had to sit in public meetings in Leadville and people tell me: ‘Look, get out of my town. There aren’t sick people here and we don’t have kids dying in the streets.’ And you start to talk about these kinds of effects and they say: ‘Well, are you saying my children are a bunch of retards?’ No, that’s not what we’re saying.”
Although most of the miners are gone, what they dug out of the mountains remains. Black slag heaps left behind from smelters are piled around the town and tailings piles rise throughout Stray Horse Gulch on the town’s east side like a miniature mountain range.
There are 2,000 mine waste dumps around the town and the lead-saturated remains of at least 16 smelters, EPA officials say.
The Superfund cleanup cost is expected to be in the millions of dollars. But EPA officials say they cannot estimate cost until the remedial plans are completed, nor will they say how the costs will be apportioned.
“Most of the damage here happened at the turn-of-the-century mining operations. We didn’t do this, but it’s the legacy of mining,” says Mike Lee, plant manager for Asarco Inc., the operator of the Black Cloud zinc mine east of downtown Leadville.
Lee’s company is one of four targeted by the EPA as responsible for the cleanup.
California Gulch, 5 miles long and a mile wide, harbored thousands of mines over the years, starting with the 1859 gold rush. But the mines were plagued by water seepage that sometimes would impede work for long stretches and posed a safety threat to the miners.
So after years of pumping the water from the mines, several mines in 1893 built the Yak Tunnel. The 4-mile underground passage drained the groundwater from the mines, discharging it into California Gulch, which in turn empties into the Arkansas River. The tunnel was abandoned in the early 1950s as mining in the area slackened.
When a water surge in 1985 turned 13 miles of the Arkansas River orange and set off health warnings, the EPA stepped in and ordered a cleanup. Federal officials say 210 tons of toxic heavy metals poured out of the tunnel each year, killing most of the aquatic life along 60 miles of the Arkansas River.
“We don’t think we’re responsible for this, but we don’t like to see orange water running through town. That gives modern-day mining a black eye,” says Lee, whose company acquired property for the Black Cloud mine in 1959 at the east end of the gulch.
Further alarming health officials was a 1989 study that found that Leadville schoolchildren had 65% more lead in their blood than children in Denver, 80 miles to the east.
About 40% of those sampled had more than 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood and a small percentage had more than 25 micrograms.
The Centers for Disease Control says a person is suffering from lead poisoning if 25 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood is found. It is considering making that standard even more stringent.
Lead poisoning can cause anemia, stomach ailments and learning problems. A recent study by a Boston doctor showed that children with high levels of lead in their blood are six times more likely to have reading disabilities.
Townspeople are angry and a bit frightened about their children’s test results. The possibility that private landowners may have to pay thousands of dollars in cleanup costs also has many residents fighting mad.
“It has been the single most anger-invoking thing around this community,” says Christine Barnett, editor of the weekly Leadville Herald Democrat.
“Culturally here mining has been people’s lives. It’s been the way they’ve lived. And one day the EPA came in and stomped all over that--an industry that was near and dear to people. And that hurt.”
Some Leadville residents are resisting the sampling program. One group has printed signs for people to put in their yards: “Notice--EPA and its associates: No soil sampling on this property. The owner.”
Wangerud says not everyone in Leadville is fighting the EPA. Some have allowed the agency to test their soil.
“I would love to see a sign go up in their yard: ‘I’ve been sampled and my property is clean. If you’re interested in buying my house you don’t have any worries because I cooperated with EPA,”’ he says, only half-jokingly.
Much of the residents’ anger stems from the town’s rich mineral history and the lack of any history of health problems.
“I guess what I and many townspeople recognize is that it’s creating a problem and you don’t see any two-headed kids or idiots,” says Mayor Jim Martin, a third-generation miner. “I maintain you can define yourself into a problem.”
The cleanup, estimated to cost $24 million just for the Yak Tunnel section, is a cooperative venture between EPA and the four so-called “potentially responsible parties"--Asarco and Newmont Mining Corp., Res-Asarco Joint Venture and Resurrection Mining Co.
The four companies agreed to terms of the cleanup in 1989. The EPA also is negotiating with several smaller companies about assuming some cleanup responsibility.
According to Lee, the Yak Tunnel cleanup is almost complete. A surge pond has been built to capture the water floods that can occur and a filter unit was constructed at the bottom of the tunnel. The company now is erecting a treatment plant to catch the water before it drains into the Arkansas. Tentative plans call for seven monitoring wells along the tunnel.
Many townspeople consider Asarco, and the other mining company still operating near Leadville, AMAX Inc.'s Climax molybdenum mine, to be good citizens. They feel Asarco and the other companies are being unnecessarily burdened with a hefty cleanup bill.
“We’re certainly no fans of the EPA,” says Carl Miller, a former miner and now president and executive director of the National Mining Hall of Fame here. “The current-day mining companies have done a lot to clean up the damage of a hundred years ago.”
In an editorial encouraging people not to allow the EPA to take soil samples on their property, Barnett cited a New York state case in which companies that were ordered by the EPA to clean up a landfill turned around and sued smaller businesses to help defray the costs. That could easily happen in Leadville, she argues.
“I am not naive enough to think cleanup issues here are going to go away by refusing to cooperate,” she wrote. “But we will sustain more injury as a community by allowing this to take place without a fight.”