No restrictions at this time.

What if the Bulkhead Bursts?

The Argo in Idaho Springs – January 19th, 1943

The morning started like any other, with miners descending into the tunnel to continue their search for rare earth metals.

Four miners were working to construct drainage and an access point for the Kansas Lode mine group so they could use the Argo Mill and Tunnel for the refinement process when the disaster struck.

Unknown to the miners, their efforts had weakened a portion of the rock wall. The wall was holding back thousands of gallons of water at high pressure, and the weakened wall couldn’t hold it back.

The wall burst, killing the four miners and flooding the tunnel. The water, and its toxic contents of heavy metals and acid, shot out of the mine like a fire hose for many hours after the accident leading to the permanent closure of The Argo Mine and Tunnel. After the high-pressure surge died down, it continued to drain contaminated water into Clear Creek for decades before the Environmental Protection Agency stepped in to contain the contamination and treat the water.

Today that water pressure is held back by a large bulkhead just a couple hundred feet into the mine at The Argo. The water behind the bulkhead is routed to a treatment facility where it is cleaned before it enters the local water supply, flowing at 700 gallons a minute. The pressure on the bulkhead is so great that the bolts need to be replaced two at a time, consistently year-round.

A Burst Today – the First Few Minutes

If a failure was to happen, hundreds of gallons of water would come spilling out of the same entrance that spewed the toxic acid and metals 70 years ago.

Evacuations would happen quickly, but Idaho Springs would be safe from the flood waters. The mouth of the tunnel would be roaring, but Clear Creek sits between the Argo in Idaho Springs and the town itself. For most of the time between 1940 and 1998, The Argo drained directly into Clear Creek and the creek could contain the flow. The risk of immediate flooding in some areas would be present, but unlikely.

Thousands of gallons of toxic water would pour into the Creek in minutes, no longer filtered and neutralized by the treatment plant. This would spell more significant problems. Each day an additional 1,200 lbs of heavy metal waste would pour into the creek.

The Following Days

After the initial high pressures were released, the water flow would subside. It would continue to drain, but much less. This would allow disaster relief crews to enter the mine and try to contain the flow, installing a new bulkhead at the Argo in Idaho Springs.

Clear Creek supplies water to a dozen towns and communities between Idaho Springs and the eastern plains before draining into the Platte River, which provides water for dozens more. This water would become unpotable, causing massive disruption in Colorado’s water resources. Clear Creek is responsible for more than a quarter-million people’s drinking water in the Denver area, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Wildlife.

After the flow died down and a new bulkhead could be installed the creek would begin to recover. In short order, the creek would be naturally cleaned and the water supply restored.

The Groundwater Impact on the Front Range

If the bulkhead was replaced and the water was once again routed to the treatment center, Clear Creek would soon return to the crystal clear and safe waters that it is right now.

Without a new bulkhead, lead and other heavy metal contamination would rise. The creek would remain contaminated and treatment centers along the creek would have to adapt and improve their filtration process to account for the higher metal toxicity.

The natural wildlife in and around the creek would be the first to suffer. Fish would die from the elevated pH levels in their habitat. Deer and other mountain wildlife would become increasingly sick as the heavy metals were ingested. The vegetation immediately surrounding the water would also be affected and pass these contaminates up their respective food chains.

Groundwater, and private water wells, would become contaminated. However, most of the wells around Clear Creek did not contain elevated metal contents during the period before the mine was sealed.

The Current Preventative Measures

The Argo in Idaho Springs and the bulkhead are closely watched and religiously maintained. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) placed the site on the Superfund locations list in 1983, marshaling people and resources to remediate the site. Today, that bulkhead is still watched and continuously maintained by the EPA.

The immense water pressure behind the bulkhead leads to erosion of the bolts. They are systematically changed out, two at a time, over a rotating schedule, so every bolt is replaced regularly. The pressure behind the bulkhead is regulated with electronic instruments and drainage systems to prevent it from escalating pressures that could result in failure. The water of Clear Creek is watched closely for heavy metals and other contaminants. While the treated water is released into the creek, the dangerous materials are pressed into solid waste and remediated into particular waste piles designed for this purpose.

All this to say, Clear Creek has some good water and will continue to as long as we maintain that bulkhead.