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Preservation vs. Reclamation in Leadville

Article by Allen Best

Historic preservation – July 2003 – Colorado Central Magazine

FOR A LARGE PART of the 1980s and 1990s, Leadville was bickering with the Environmental Protection Agency in a dispute faintly similar to the one now involving Camp Hale.

This argument in Lake County can partly be described by the adage, “One man’s treasure is another man’s junk.” If not necessarily junk, the EPA saw the mining dumps and tailings piles scattered across the city and adjoining areas as causes of environmental degradation.

It’s hard to completely dismiss this contention. As Sharon Chickering noted in an April 1998 article in Colorado Central, neither sagebrush nor lodgepole pines, both hardy natives of the Upper Arkansas Valley, could establish footholds in areas of acidic runoff, the result of the iron pyrite coming into contact with water and oxygen.

But this anguish was about something more. When California Gulch was listed as a Superfund site in 1983, the community’s leading taxpayer and employer, the Climax Mine, had only recently closed. Already brought to their knees by financial reverses, many Leadville citizens responded to the EPA’s subsequent actions as an attack.

In the early stages, a certain bumbling ineptness on the part of the EPA presented a textbook case of “how not to win friends and influence neighbors in Leadville.” In the telling of local officials, including State Rep. Carl Miller, who was then a county commissioner, the locals basically weren’t invited to the table — unless they were willing to take financial responsibility for the actions of their ancestors. That, Miller says, was a mistake, because the project could have benefited from local expertise.

And, as Chickering noted in her 1998 article, with 2,000 mines, 115 mills, and 7 smelters in a concentrated area of 16.5 square miles, this was not your ordinary Superfund site.

One dispute was about the mine dumps located on the town’s east side, particularly in the area of Carbonate Hill, as well as workings in California Gulch. The EPA wanted to consolidate the mine dumps into what locals derisively called wedding cakes, tiered structures, capped with impervious materials to prevent surface water from becoming contaminated with iron pyrite.

“That was wrong,” Miller says flatly. Miller, who once labored at the Climax Mine as an electrician, uses strong language when describing the tension that flared in 1993. He talks about the EPA “destroying some of our cultural history,” and about the “attack on the historic mining district of Leadville.”

BUT IT’S A SAFE BET that even now, a decade after the peak in hostilities, some would use stronger language.

Ed Raines, as chairman of a group called Friends of Mineralogy, became involved in the dispute in 1993. Raines lives in Ward, an old gold-mining town west of Boulder, at the foot of the Indian Peaks. A geologist by training, he now tacks historian onto his resume. In Leadville, he saw something special.

“If you were to pick out one place in Colorado to preserve the mining history, that one place would be Leadville. There are only two other places that could compete, Central City and Cripple Creek. But Leadville spans the gamut of time and minerals. It’s the quintessential boomtown for the entire West. It’s an incredible historical story.”

In his recollection, there was never any doubt that some environmental restoration was necessary in Leadville. The argument, he says, was over the size and scale. The dispute flared in 1993, when a meeting was called of everybody from congressional aides to local politicians and historic preservationists. Of specific concern were the plans for Carbonate Hill. All wanted to see the process slowed, the plans reconfigured.

To that, the EPA administrator of the time responded, “It’s too late; the contracts have all been signed.” At that point, says Raines, everybody exploded, but especially State Sen. Ken Chlouber. The EPA, he was to say later, “needs to leave Leadville with no strings attached. They need to get us off the Superfund list.”

In fact, the EPA is still in Leadville, and is likely to remain there for some time yet, but the friction has cooled considerably.

Perhaps one of the most annoying factors in the clean-up was how long it took. The EPA arrived in Leadville long before work began, and for more than a decade, continuous talk of contaminated soil contributed to the serious financial repercussions of mine closures. It was hard to attract new investors and businesses when everyone was talking about the possible health consequences of lead poisoning. But now the clean-up has brought some positive results, including cleaner water, some historical preservation, and the assurance that health and environmental problems have been addressed.

Below the surface, however, some feelings remain bruised.

TODAY, THE OLD, dominant mining culture is fading as Lake County moves in new directions. Bridging this era of transition is Leadville’s mayor, Chet Gaede. In a town where many residents proudly articulate their mining pedigree, he can pinpoint his own arrival to only seven years ago. He sees benefits to both environmental cleanup and historical preservation.

The task that Gaede describes is to avoid confusing the issues. Trying to recreate the natural landscape is, at this point, impossible. “You would never, unless you stuffed all that dirt back into the holes, get back to the topography that was here before mining. It makes no more sense than to tear down all the historic buildings on Harrison Avenue, to be replaced by modern buildings.”

At the same time, he doesn’t favor attachment to all of the old shacks, mine dumps, and piles of slag. “I don’t think you have to keep it as pure as, ‘By god, you can’t touch this because there used to be mines up there,'” he says. But those relics are, in fact, a vital part of Leadville’s continuing economy, historical tourism, he says. If it serves no purpose to remove them, they shouldn’t be. Eventually, when the land becomes more valuable for some other purpose, perhaps even mining, as some people think will happen in another 100 years or so, then that will be the time to tinker with the landscape.

Disputes about mining restoration, says Robert Froedeman, a professor of environmental philosophy at the University of Colorado-Boulder’s Center for Science and Technology Policy Research, are really proxies. “Science and economics,” he says, “are often stalking horses for other issues that we think we’re not allowed to talk about.”

Studying the situation in the San Juan Mountains, particularly around Silverton, he finds no evidence that abandoned mines threaten the environment. Yet there is some controversy. “It’s in large part an aesthetic, ethical, or even theological problem,” he says.

Raines also perceives a hidden agenda. Many people, he says, consider mining a “dirty little secret.” We don’t want to acknowledge that it was ever necessary, much less that it is necessary today.

BUT IS IT NECESSARY to preserve every mine dump, every mine shack, every hole in the ground? Is everything we’ve ever done to the landscape sacred, simply because we did it, because it was there? Is every log cabin once inhabited by brave pioneers to be restored? Is there no end to this collecting? Can’t we expurgate occasionally?

To historical purists, such as Raines, the simple answer is yes — everything should be saved. To pick and choose what part of our history to save begins a process of selection that is dangerous, he says. By retaining only parts of their history, the Soviets essentially chose a false history.

“How many Civil War battlefields do we need to preserve? Near as I can tell, nearly every one,” responds Raines. “It’s just a terribly important part in our history. And similarly, every mining camp in Colorado was different in some way — the access, the geology, the science involved in mining, milling and extraction.”

Not everybody is interested in these minutiae, he concedes. “We all have our little niches. “Yet mining history, he argues, has been neglected by the main push of historical preservation, even during the heady years of theClinton administration.

Mt. Vernon, the first evidence of Clovis man, even lodges at Yellowstone National Park — all received attention, “but they didn’t want anything having to do with mining,” he says. Even the Colorado Historical Society is “obviously uncomfortable in dealing with mining.”

Evidence for Raine’s contention can be found in an entirely unexpected quarter, the art collection of Colorado’s wealthiest resident, Phillip Anschutz. Several years ago he loaned a portion of his collection to the Denver Art Museum. Of the dozens and dozens of paintings there were cowboys and Indians, trappers and shepherds, Hispanics and Anglos and Blackfeet. But only two paintings depicted anything of the industrial West that, as Raines and others point out, was the foundation for the modern West.

Across Tennessee Pass, Gilman’s Eagle Mine was declared a Superfund site about the same time as Leadville’s California Gulch. But that mine was already dwarfed by Vail when it was closed in 1977, and the Eagle Valley felt little connection to its mining history. Yet ex-miners abound, and many were insulted by the cleanup efforts. I first became aware of this in the early 1990s, soon after cleanup work began. A former miner called, complaining bitterly about the coverage of the newspaper I then edited. The miners had done nothing wrong, he said. Why were we bad-mouthing them?

I didn’t think we had been. I saw only a river that had turned orange and was too unhealthy to support even scrawny fish. Restoration was necessary.

But I also understood what he was saying. In recent years, environmental concerns have prompted changes that distress not only miners, but also cattlemen, loggers and industrial workers. Occupations which once brought growth and prosperity to Colorado are now seen as liabilities.

TODAY, MOUNTAIN RESIDENTS routinely fight against proposed mining projects — and it’s hard to reject mining without implicating miners. In modern America, many people feel that their work isn’t fully appreciated — teachers, parents, police officers — but miners feel the extra burden of having their work villified.

Michael Gallagher, now a county commissioner in Eagle County, began working in Minturn as a police officer in 1973, but thinks he at least partially understands the miners’ response. Mining, he says, is no mere job. It’s dangerous working below ground; every shift presents the possibility that you might not see daylight again. And in time of war: “You’re hauling out the lead that they use to make the bullets, as well as the copper, the tungsten, and all the other metals needed to produce the equipment used in combat. The Defense Department even gives out awards to miners.”

Gallagher identifies with some of the struggles miners have experienced. When he ceased being the police chief, it took him a long time to “understand that my whole existence wasn’t wrapped up in being a police chief.” Miners must have had the same struggle.

Then, “when they see efforts made to eliminate the mine tailings and dumps, and they feel they are getting blamed for the fish dying, they take it as a personal affront.” ยค