Leadville, Colorado is one of the jewels of American city-building. If Denver is the mile-high city, Leadville is the Two-Mile High City, rising 10,152 feet above sea level, the highest city elevation in the United States. A product of the gold and silver rushes of the late nineteenth century, Leadville was famous for its quick mineral strikes and for some of its well-known residents and visitors, among them OK Corral gunfighter Doc Holliday and playwright and self-proclaimed genius Oscar Wilde. Wilde made Leadville infamous with his comments about “the only rational method of art criticism” he’d ever seen, posted above a piano in a Leadville saloon: “Please don’t shoot the piano player; he is doing his best.” Even after the end of the Leadville silver boom in 1893, Leadville remained a popular leave destination for soldiers stationed nearby, as well as a well-populated suburb for former mining families and a tourist destination for anyone interested in one of the most colorful chapters of America’s past.
Now all that is threatened by industrial pollution and environmental degradation. The miners of Leadville dug deeply into the earth and brought out its mineral riches. In the process, they had to drain off water poisoned by mining equipment and toxic minerals loosed from the earth. The government built a drainage pipe in the 1940s to leach this water into the Arkansas River, where it would be carried to the sea. Classic example of industrial pollution and environmental degradation, and one for which the town of Leadville may have paid, with its life.
The drainage tunnel, long unmaintained with the late-1980s closure of the Leadville mines, collapsed at some point in the early 1990s. The toxic water, instead of draining off “safely” into the ocean, has instead been backing up in the ruined drainage tunnel ever since.
As of 2008, the tunnel is filled with one billion gallons of poisonous water. At any moment, heavy snows, shifts in the earth, or literally any number of disturbances could cause the tunnel to crack. When that happens, not if, but when that happens, Leadville and its 2,000+ residents will be directly in the path of the toxic flow, the tragic inheritors of industrial pollution and environmental degradation.
In February of 2008, the town authorities declared a state of emergency. Children are made to practice evacuation drills. The federal government can do nothing. It’s reminiscent of the “duck and cover” atomic-bomb culture of the 1950s. Only in this case, there is no enemy army aiming missiles at us. There’s no easily-blamed villain, beyond industrial pollution and environmental degradation, that same industrial pollution and environmental degradation than in a sick twist of fate made Leadville famous to begin with. In the words of Pogo Possum: the town of Leadville has met the enemy, and he is us.