Getting the lead out

Semi-trailer rigs have been rumbling back and forth along nearby Custer County Road 271, hauling rock to the EPA’s emergency response cleanup project at the Terrible Mine. The ASARCO mining company is paying about $1.4 million for the cleanup, according to the EPA.

My house is located a couple miles from the mine as the raven flies. However, since the county once used the mine’s tailings to surface miles of local roads, lead from this mine could be found just about anywhere in this area.

Tests conducted by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and released in 1998 revealed stretches of two main thoroughfares near my house — county roads 271 and 265 — had lead-carbonate concentrations ranging from 3,000 to 4,000 ppm. By comparison, the EPA’s action level for lead in soil in residential areas of the California Gulch Superfund site near Leadville was 3,500 ppm.

Tailings right at the Terrible Mine contain lead at levels up to 25,000 ppm.

Last summer a test of water from my well — taken during a period of heavy summer rainfall — found lead at levels at nearly double those considered acceptable by the EPA for drinking water. A subsequent test weeks later during a dry spell found no detectable levels of lead in our water.

These tests on our water sparked my High Country News/Writers on the Range essay called “Something in the water.” The piece has been picked up by a number of Colorado newspapers, as well as papers in Wyoming, Oregon and Montana. You can read it on the Summit Daily’s site: Click here.

I’m left wondering whether there’s any connection between the lead apparently passing through my well water and tailings from the nearby mine that were used on local roads. Is it possible lead carbonate in tailings spread on the roadways could have washed off the roads, leached into the ground and made its way into the fractured-rock aquifers that feed my well?

Meanwhile, despite the contractor’s efforts with a water truck, the semi-trailers raise great clouds of dust on the road every day.

5 thoughts on “Getting the lead out

  1. Carbonate of Lead is a chemically stable compound and not easily disssolvable unless you use a pretty strong acid. No rainfall is ever acidic enough to do that.

    The likely source of your lead is the rock in your area. If the Terrible Mine (who would name anything like that?) was mining this deposit I guarantee there is more still in the ground. Now some rainfall following fractures in the ground, encountering pyrite (FeS2) reacts and makes H2SO4 (sulfuric acid) that would indeed dissolve the lead carbonate.

    So you will likely have varying levels of lead even when the tailings are gone.

    I test my well in Leadville often and when drilled the lead levels were acceptable by EPA standards but are now 1.5 times the EPA standard. But that’s because EPA decreased the standard a few years ago.

  2. I’ve done some more research on the deposit at the Terrible Mine and it turns out it’s very unique. Pure “white lead” ore in the complete absence of any sulfide minerals, wedged between two faulted layers of gneiss. Obviously it’s of secondary origin. Also found at Terrible is the rare mineral phosgenite, or lead cholocarbonate.

    Lead carbonate is very stable, as you note. It is however and for some reason, very bioavailable to young children and plants. For many years it was used in lead-based paints, but was banned due to problems with lead poisoning in children.

    The real wildcard here is that they surfaced roads (including mine) with tailings from this mine. My theory is this may run off and get into the fractured rock aquifer system.

    And, get this, there are as many as three “Terrible Mines” in Colorado!

  3. There is a chain of gas stations in Las Vegas owned by Fred Terrible. The name of these stations: “Terrible Gas”.

    The lead used in paint was lead oxide, not carbonate of lead from what I’ve read. Do you have a source that confirms the use of lead carbonate?

  4. Dave, more specifically, lead carbonate readily oxidizes into lead oxide that was used in paints.

    See and scroll down to “Commercial Uses.”

    Here’s a 1907 quote from my upcoming column:

    “Some of the ore was smelted but most of it was oxidized directly to litharge (lead oxide) which was exceptionally high grade,” Brinsmade wrote.

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