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Know the West

Can tailings piles be historic artifacts?


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

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.

But locals 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 children.

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 legislature.

"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."

She 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.

The 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."