Tales of Colorado's high-elevation tailings

  • Leadville: The Struggle to Revive an American Town

  In 1983, an anonymous caller warned Doc Smith that "his river would turn red." Sure enough, the next day, the rancher and veterinarian watched toxic mining metals surge through the Arkansas River as it crossed his property.

This wasn’t the first time: His grandfather had fought the effects of mining on his ranchlands and livestock since 1906, and Smith had experienced these mine "burps" before.

In Leadville: The Struggle to Revive an American Town, Gillian Klucas describes the mining history of the community that gave rise to the Tabor Opera House and the Guggenheim and May fortunes, as well as to the mining waste on Doc Smith’s land. Locals generally agree that Klucas’ book is "balanced" — high praise for a book describing a still-unresolved conflict.

As a result of environmental legislation passed in the 1970s — and insistent voices such as Doc Smith’s — the state and federal governments have tried to reduce risks from lead and other toxins to residents and to the Arkansas River watershed. But Leadville’s pride in its mining history has caused it to continue siding with the mining companies over the Environmental Protection Agency during discussions over maximum levels of lead in soil. In the meantime, structured "wedding cake" tailing piles and ponds the color of merlot have become new local realities.

This 21st century mining town struggle is similar to older Wild West tales: local townspeople trying to make a living, powerful dudes imposing their will, and lawmen caught in between. But in this modern twist to the story, "the law" is the EPA. Klucas tells the story of Leadville with compassion, color, energy and a knack for explaining legal and scientific aspects. Note to the EPA: Doc is still waiting for his soil to be cleaned up.

Leadville: The Struggle to Revive an American Town
Gillian Klucas
304 pages, hardcover $26: Island Press, 2004