DENVER - The Environmental Protection Agency said it could be a month or two before crews pump water from a crumbling tunnel where officials fear more than a billion gallons of trapped water could cause a potentially catastrophic flood in a historic mining town.
EPA officials are scrambling to find a contractor and more than $4.5 million to pay for the project, said Stan Christensen, remedial project manager for the federal agency.
Lake County officials declared a state of emergency for fear that melt from record snowfall could add to growing pressure in the tunnel and cause a blowout and flood the town of Leadville, about 85 miles southwest of Denver.
A speaker system that would broadcast evacuation notices has been installed near a mobile home park that has 300 residents near the tunnel's portal.
The partially collapsed Leadville Mine Drainage Tunnel drains contaminated water from abandoned mines that date back to the 1800s.
Federal and state agencies had been working on a plan to drain the tunnel since at least 2003. But the plan to drill into the tunnel and pump water more than a mile to a water treatment plant became bogged down in a bureaucratic quagmire over ownership.
The federal Bureau of Reclamation wanted to give Colorado the tunnel, a $20 million water plant that removes heavy metals and other contaminates from the old mines, and $30 million — enough for 40 years of operating expenses, said reclamation spokesman Peter Soeth.
But the state balked.
"Frankly I don't blame them," Christensen said. "It's taking on a considerable liability for the state."
Built over nine years ending in 1952, the tunnel was meant to drain the historic mining district in the hills east of Leadville where years ago miners searched for gold, silver, and other minerals.
The Bureau of Reclamation took ownership of the tunnel in 1959 and began treating the contaminated water draining from the tunnel in 1992.