Applegate mine on list for EPA's Superfund

A long-abandoned copper and cadmium mine high in the Applegate River drainage was added to the Superfund list on Thursday by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The decision to add the Blue Ledge mine on the list of the nation's worst polluted places qualifies it for additional cleanup funding, EPA officials said.

Tailings at the mine, about three miles south of the California state line, are laced with a heavy-metal mix of arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead, sulfuric acid and zinc.

In addition to the Blue Ledge mine, the abandoned New Idria Mercury Mine site in California's San Benito County, the second largest producer of mercury in North America that was in operation more than 100 years, was also added to the list.

Situated about 60 miles southeast of Hollister, the mine's mercury contamination has been polluting waterways leading to the San Joaquin River and San Francisco Bay, EPA officials said.

"The legacy of abandoned mines continues to threaten the public health and natural resources of California," Jared Blumenfeld, EPA's regional administrator for the Pacific Southwest, said in a prepared statement. "Now that these toxic mine sites have been declared Superfund sites, the EPA can move ahead to clean them up, protecting important waterways like the San Francisco Bay from mercury and other pollutants."

Last year, the U.S. Forest Service received $12.4 million in federal stimulus funds, along with $1.4 million from the ASARCO Environmental Trust, to seal waste rock from the Blue Ledge mine into an on-site repository. The waste rock had been leaching the toxic chemicals. Most of that work was completed in the summer of 2010, but additional cleanup work was done this summer.

About 40,000 cubic yards of toxic rock were removed from the mountainside and placed in a nearby, 3-acre, sealed repository by contractors last summer. The repository can hold up to 60,000 cubic yards.

The 700-acre Blue Ledge mine is on privately owned land surrounded by the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. The U.S. Forest Service took the lead in the cleanup work because the mine was found to be leaching the toxic chemicals into streams feeding the Applegate River, according to Pete Jones, geologist in charge of cleaning up abandoned mines for the U.S. Forest Service in Oregon and far Northern California.

Once that work was completed, that agency would hand over the long-term oversight of the project to the state of California and the EPA, he noted in an interview earlier this year. Listing the site on the Superfund list would allow the EPA to augment work done by the contractors hired by the Forest Service, he said.

The EPA, which has jurisdiction on private land when it comes to environmental pollution, will keep tabs on the site to ensure toxins are no longer leaching into the watershed, he added.

Before the waste rock was removed, the chemical ooze from the mine over the years violated the federal Clean Water Act. Seepage from the mine went into Joe Creek, which flows into Elliot Creek. That stream flows into the Applegate River and into the reservoir behind Applegate Dam. The reservoir is about eight miles downstream from the mine.

The chemicals leaching from the tailings are believed to be responsible for the lack of aquatic organisms and fish found in more than three miles of stream downriver from the mine.

The mine was most active during World War I and has been dormant for decades. Prospectors discovered the copper deposit in 1898. Several small communities that sprang up near the mine are long gone.

After the Salem resident who owned the land died several years ago, the mine was passed on to relatives who gave their blessing to the federal cleanup effort. The family was not involved in the mining operation.

The Superfund list, known officially as the Superfund National Priorities List, has had 1,652 sites added to it since the program was created in 1980. Cleanup has been completed at two-thirds of those sites, EPA officials said.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or e-mail

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