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News >  Idaho

Storms cloud future of old mine cleanups

Jim Nieman, U.S. Forest Service geotechnical engineer, points toward the work being done to remove mining waste in Lake Pend Oreille''s Gold Creek watershed. 
 (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Jim Nieman, U.S. Forest Service geotechnical engineer, points toward the work being done to remove mining waste in Lake Pend Oreille''s Gold Creek watershed. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

LAKEVIEW, Idaho – The massive hill of dirt looks like it was dumped here yesterday. No plants grow on its slopes, which seem to crumble and tumble down to a nearby creekbed with every footstep.

The pile has been here for nearly a century, said Earl Liverman, project manager with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It looks fresh because the dirt is actually arsenic-rich mine tailings. In some places, the tailings contain 900 times the amount of arsenic needed to kill any seed that manages to land and sprout in the soft earth.

“I can’t think of another site where I’ve dealt with arsenic at these concentrations,” Liverman said, while walking through the area Thursday.

After years of leaching poison into Chloride Creek – at a spot five miles upstream from Lake Pend Oreille – and toxic dust into the nearby forest, the tailings pile is being cleaned up. By the end of October, the last of an estimated 2,500 dump-truck loads of the tailings will have been deposited in a nearby “dry tomb.” The lined waste repository will then be sealed with thick plastic and capped by 2 feet of soil.

The $1 million cleanup is part of a larger effort to rid North Idaho of myriad contaminated mining sites. North of Bonners Ferry, the federal government is also in the midst of a large cleanup of a mine that has essentially sterilized seven miles of Blue Joe Creek, said Jim Nieman, a geotechnical engineer with Idaho Panhandle National Forests.

The U.S. Forest Service is working with the EPA on many of the projects. The old mines are typically located on federal lands and were operated at the turn of the century, long before the advent of most environmental protection laws. Back then, the fine silt and sand left over after precious metals were extracted from the crushed ore were usually dumped into the nearest creek valley, Nieman said. Silver-bearing ore often contains harmful byproducts, including arsenic.

“I don’t blame them,” Nieman said of the miners. “Back then, this was common practice.”

The cleanup along Chloride Creek is focused mostly on the Idaho Lakeview Mine. Next summer, the federal government hopes to haul away tailings from the nearby Conjecture Mine. But with so much money and manpower being sent to the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast, plans are uncertain, Liverman said.

“What the future holds we don’t know,” he said. “All federal agencies are considering the implications of Katrina, Rita and whatever else may occur between now and the end of hurricane season.”

Like many other federal employees across the Northwest, Liverman is being sent to Louisiana in early October to help deal with the cleanup. The hurricane is also sucking away portions of the cleanup budget. The heavy equipment used to excavate and haul the tailings burn about 400 gallons of diesel each day. By the end of the project, the higher fuel prices will add an estimated $25,000 to the cost, said Jason Coury, response manager with Environmental Quality Management, which is the primary contractor for the cleanup.

The Idaho Lakeview cleanup began two weeks ago and will eventually remove about 50,000 cubic yards of tailings. Earlier phases of the cleanup involved removing tailings that had previously washed downstream from the mine. In a former tailings pond at the site, alder saplings and horsetail plants now grow.

“There was nothing here not long ago,” Nieman said during a tour of the site.

The mine operated on and off from the turn of the century through the 1960s, but peak silver and lead production occurred in the 1920s and 1940s, Nieman said. After ore was removed, it was crushed and the silver and other valuable metals were removed through a flotation process. Once the metal was skimmed off, the remaining tailings were dumped near Chloride Cree.

Nieman compared the tailings pile to a “chronic, festering sore.” Samples of the tailings showed arsenic levels in most areas higher than 3,000 parts per million and up to 9,000 parts per million. In nearby West Gold Creek, where no large-scale mining occurred, the natural arsenic level is about 35 parts per million. At high levels, the element causes cancer, birth defects, heart problems, kidney failure and a variety of lesser ailments.

Near the base of the tailings pile, the sand and gravel is tinged with a white, saltlike substance. “These are highly soluble polymetallic salts,” including arsenic and lead, Nieman said. “When rain hits, they dissolve and go down to the lake.”

Chloride Creek feeds Gold Creek, an important spawning stream for threatened bull trout. Samples taken from the mouth of Gold Creek, about five miles north of the mine tailings pile, show elevated levels of arsenic, but not levels that pose health threats to humans or wildlife, Nieman said.

Workers at the site must take special precautions to protect their health. Dust monitors are set up at various spots near the tailings pile. Some workers wear respirators. All are required to undergo annual physicals. Any visit to the site requires a safety lecture and a post-visit hand-washing. Visitors are also advised to scrub any mud from their shoes.

George Iftner, a geologist with Herrera Environmental Consultants, helps ensure the work environment is safe and to conduct spot checks of contamination levels using a $50,000 handheld device that employs X-rays and gamma rays to measure the concentration of pollutants.

“I wonder about the miners – they worked in this stuff for years,” Iftner said.

The tailings pile is growing shorter daily. Trucks remove 30 tons at a time, hauling the sandy tailings to the three-acre repository about a mile down the road. The repository is located away from any nearby stream and will be capped to prevent arsenic-laced dust from threatening the campers, hikers and hunters who travel to this corner of the national forest.

Small amounts of tailings will remain in portions of Chloride Creek downstream from the old mine, but the level of contamination will be low enough not to pose a threat to the health of creatures in or out of the seasonal stream, Nieman said.

“By removing the source, we get rid of that continual release of contaminants into the environment,” Nieman said.

Once the poison is removed, the healing process begins quickly. At Blue Joe Creek north of Bonners Ferry, insects are already being spotted in stretches of the stream that were once completely devoid of life.

“It’s going to take time,” Nieman said.

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