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Eruption of tainted water could swamp Colorado town

Colorado, USA
Leadville, Colorado, seen in a 2005 photo, is threatened by contaminated water trapped in old mining tunnels.

More than 1 billion gallons of contaminated water - enough to fill 1,500 Olympic-sized swimming pools - is trapped in a tunnel in the mountains above the historic town of Leadville and threatening to blow. Lake County Commissioners have declared a local state of emergency for fear that this winter's above-average snowpack will melt and cause a catastrophic tidal wave. The water is backed up in abandoned mine shafts and a 2.1-mile drainage tunnel that is partially collapsed, creating the pooling of water contaminated with heavy metals. County officials have been nervously monitoring the rising water pressure inside the mine shafts for about two years. An explosion could inundate Leadville and contaminate the Arkansas River. "It could come out, we just don't know where. We're seeing changes and we're very concerned. We're not crying `Chicken Little' here." A speaker system to broadcast evacuation notices has already been installed near a mobile home park that has 300 residents near the tunnel's portal. "Due to the unknown condition of the tunnel blockage 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 tunnel] is likely at some point," said an EPA letter sent in November. New springs and seepages have appeared at California Gulch, which sits below the plant. Tests have shown high levels of heavy metals typically found in mine discharge, leading officials to conclude the trapped water is finding ways out. "No one can tell us what it means. It's finding fault lines and it's pouring mine-contaminated water into the Arkansas."

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