Lake County Declares Disaster Emergency Over Water Blockage

Blowout Would Endanger 400 Lives, Cause Massive Damage To The Colorado Ecosystem

Lake County declared a disaster emergency Wednesday night, based upon the threat imposed by elevated ground water in the Lake County Mining District.

The Leadville Mine Drainage Tunnel, completed during the Korean War, became blocked due to a partial tunnel collapse which may have occurred years ago. The blockage is holding back a significant accumulation of potentially contaminated water.

County commissioners are worried that the pressure building behind the collapse could lead to a tunnel blowout that might seriously damage the Village at Lake Fork trailer park and drastically alter water quality in the Arkansas River. Up to 400 lives could be endangered if the blowout occurs, according to a state senator.

Ground seepage from increased snow levels is adding further pressure on the blockage. The tunnel is owned by the Bureau of Reclamation.

On Thursday, the Colorado Division of Emergency Management set up a conference call with affected agencies to determine how to best address this potential threat to the residents of Lake County, as well as environmental impacts.

"Our priority is to support Lake County in protecting residents who may be directly affected by this potentially dangerous situation. We intend to facilitate mitigation of threat as quickly and effectively as possible," said Hans Kallam, Director of the Division of Emergency Management.

Meanwhile, State Sen. Tom Wiens, R-Castle Rock, sent a letter to Gov. Bill Ritter and President George W. Bush Thursday urging a state and federal emergency declaration for Lake County and the headwaters of the Arkansas River Watershed in order to free up emergency funds for the immediate dewatering of the LMDT mine pool.

Sen. Wiens called for immediate and swift action to avert a disaster and prevent any future delay of a solution to this problem.

"The situation at the Leadville Mine Drainage Tunnel is severe and the time has come for an immediate fix. The Federal Government is responsible for this property and they need to fix it. Federal funds must be made available and the United States Bureau of Reclamation authorities must be required to take immediate action to relieve the pressure inside the LMDT," Wiens said.

Senator Wiens has been extensively briefed on the threat at the Leadville Mine Drainage Tunnel. The tunnel collects heavy metal and acid mine drainage from many historic abandoned mines in the area and transports the contaminated water to a treatment facility. Because of the obstructions in the tunnel, adequate water is not getting to the treatment facility.

The mine pool contains over one billion gallons of toxic, heavy metal-laden water. If a blowout in the tunnel occurs, this water could spill out into the Arkansas River and would endanger the lives of over 400 Lake County residents, and would cause massive damage to the Colorado ecosystem.

The Arkansas River Basin provides over two million acre feet of water for Colorado agriculture a year, and is a key source of water for Colorado Springs, Aurora, Pueblo and the Front Range.

The United States Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) is in charge of maintenance and upkeep of the LMDT. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has warned the Bureau in a letter dated November 8, 2007 that, "Due to the unknown condition of the tunnel blockages and the large volume of water behind the blockages, we are concerned that an uncontrolled, potentially-catastrophic release of water to the Arkansas River from the LMDT is likely at some point. Not only endangering human life (people living in the East Fork Trailer Park and BOR employees), the sudden release of water, rock, sediment, and heavy metals to the Arkansas River would be an environmental disaster." (Source 11-08-07 letter from EPA Regional Administrator Robert E. Roberts to BOR Regional Director Michael Ryan)

"The Federal Government and specifically the Bureau of Reclamation must get the job done and protect the citizens of Lake County and Colorado," Wiens said. "They must immediately procure the funds necessary to implement remedial action recommended by the County commissioners and local experts to drill wells, install pumps and dewater the mine pool."

"The estimated cost of this fix is between five and ten million dollars. "The estimated costs of a catastrophic blow out could be lives lost and immense environmental damage," Wiens said.

"Large amounts of water will be infiltrating the mine pool when this yearÂ’s exceptionally high snow-pack begins to melt into the tunnel system, further increasing the already worrisome water levels," Wiens said. "I hope the Bureau of ReclamationÂ’s lack of action does not cause this situation to end up like the Teton Dam Disaster in Idaho."

The Teton Dam, which was also managed by the BOR, collapsed in 1976, and resulted in 14 deaths and over a billion dollars in damages to the environment and the surrounding community.

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