Down in the Hole

The old coal-mining town of Leyden is a tough place--but not too tough to die.

"The land from Rocky Flats slopes east," says Paul Davis. "The groundwater doesn't run this way."

Of more importance to the little town was a dramatic plan to put the former coal mine to a new use. Public Service Company bought up rights to the abandoned mine in the mid-1950s and announced plans to convert it into a major storage facility for natural gas. By 1959 the utility company had begun work on the project.

The mine today can store up to 3 billion cubic feet of natural gas and is an important part of metro Denver's energy supply. A large pumping facility is located just across the road from Leyden, and monitoring stations dot the hillsides between the town and highway 93. The presence of so much natural gas just across the street from the town means that most of the land on the west side of Leyden can't be developed. Residents say they've learned to live with the gas mine. But the relationship has at times been a tenuous one.

The utility company has acknowledged that gas has leaked from the mine over the years, though it denies any public health hazard. However, last week a landowner sued the PUC, claiming that leaking gas had contaminated his land north of the storage facility, creating a risk of explosion. And the presence of the gas facility has had other adverse effects on the town's ability to grow.

Like many cities in the arid West, Leyden struggled for years to find a dependable water supply. The first residents to buy homes after the coal mine shut down hauled water from a single tap that flowed from a spring on a nearby hill. The Davises remember carrying two- and three-gallon buckets of water back to their house in the 1950s. That supply was never adequate, and two tragic fires highlighted the dangers posed by the limited supply of water. A blaze in 1952 killed two-year-old twins, and another fire in 1954 killed a two-year-old girl and her two-month-old sister. Leyden's residents decided they'd had enough. They voted 33-9 to create a water district charged with digging a community well.

Unfortunately for Leyden, the water from the new well was so contaminated with cattle droppings that massive amounts of chlorine had to be added to make it drinkable. The water was more heavily chlorinated than many swimming pools; some residents compared it to drinking diluted Clorox bleach.

The state health department frequently checked the town's water supply. By 1969 the community well had started to cave in, and the health department was so concerned about Leyden's water that it began taking samples three times a week. Several mothers in town believed the strong chemicals in the water were making their children ill, and they contacted an Arvada attorney and asked him to help the water district find an alternate supply.

A natural solution would have been to dig a deeper well, but the residents couldn't dig deeper because of the natural-gas facility. The coal-mine shafts stretch for hundreds of feet in all directions around Leyden, and Public Service feared residents might accidentally tap into its highly pressurized natural-gas supply, potentially touching off a huge explosion. "I had to sign a paper that said if I dug a well I couldn't go below fifty feet," says Davis.

The situation looked desperate, and some feared Leyden would have to be abandoned a second time. That's when Leyden's water board appealed to Arvada for permission to link up with the burgeoning suburb's water system. Arvada approved a temporary deal to supply water to Leyden in 1970. However, when the city ran its high pressure water into Leyden's jerry-built patchwork of pipes, many of them came apart at the seams. While trying to fix the pipes, engineers discovered that some sections of the town's water pipes were so old that they had disintegrated, and the water was running through hollowed-out dirt.

Arvada extended its emergency agreement to supply Leyden with water through March 1, 1973, but told the townspeople it wouldn't supply Leyden with water after that unless the town came up with $48,000 to replace the water pipes. Applications were made to several federal agencies but were turned down, and it looked like Leyden's luck had run out. At the last minute, Colorado Governor John Love gave the town most of the funding it needed from the state's emergency budget.

The infusion of funds saved Leyden. But the agreement with Arvada also put the little town squarely in the crosshairs of its larger neighbor's expansion plans. Once miles away, the Arvada city limit is now little more than a mile from Leyden, which is in unincorporated Jefferson County. And Arvada, which seems to aspire to becoming the Aurora of the metro area's west side, has annexed land on the north and south sides of Leyden all the way to highway 93.

Arvada officials make it clear that they have their eye on Leyden, which is within the growth limits of the suburb's comprehensive plan. "There are no plans now to annex it," says Arvada planning director Mike Elms. "But if our growth limits ever build out, Leyden could eventually be in Arvada."

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