LEADVILLE, Colo. - Here below a ring of magnificent peaks, the scenery features a maze of tailings piles and the decaying architecture of mines, mills and smelters that outsiders might see as ugly and meaningless.
like Carl Miller enjoy the sight of tailings turning yellow and
orange with age.
"This is our historical
landscape," he says. "My family mined around here for more than a
hundred years. My grandfather was a miner and so was my father. I
worked underground for 27 years."
With all but
one mine shut down, the biggest outsider, the federal Environmental
Protection Agency, came in 15 years ago and declared the area a
Superfund site. The EPA was welcomed at first, as it managed to
reduce pollution from old mines draining into a river. But as its
cleanup has expanded to include the entire town and outlying
gulches, it met opposition. The crucial disagreement has to do with
lead residue in neighborhood soil and how dangerous that is to
Another disagreement seems symbolic.
Last summer, the agency led a cleanup in Stray Horse Gulch that, in
the eyes of some, went too far.
"Before the EPA
went in there, that dump had variation of colors, many different
levels and steep slopes, showing how the miners operated," says
Miller, who's the director of the National Mining Hall of Fame and
Museum and represents Leadville in the state
"There was some attractive cribbing
(bulwarks in the gulch)," Miller says. "But the EPA's people
reshaped everything, made their own contours, and covered it all
with (clean dirt and rock) from another mine. They made it a giant
gravel pile. The recapped dumps look totally artificial, all one
color, and the color comes from miles away."
Rebecca Thomas, the EPA's project manager for
Leadville, counters, "We're trying to preserve as much of the
history as we can," while reducing pollution hazards. She estimates
the cleanup will cost as much as $100 million, split between the
Superfund and companies that are being held responsible, but "we're
trying to take the low impact approach."
says the EPA was sensitive in dealing with another tailings pile
that had been scattered over the years - the small piles were
consolidated to full glory, a pile "as big as it was at the turn of
the century." Negotiating with the local government, the EPA agreed
to leave some old dumps more or less intact.
same disagreement, preservation vs. cleanup, can be heard in other
old mining towns ranging from Butte to Telluride. Reading between
the lines, it's apparent people like Miller are fed up with how
long the cleanup is taking, how much it's costing and the bad
publicity the town is getting, and they look for any ground upon
which they can oppose the EPA. Grant Dunham, editor of the local
newspaper, the Leadville Herald Democrat, says, "Both sides have
gone way out of whack on this thing."