Mineral Basin mine cleanup ready for finishing touches

Mineral Basin mine cleanup ready for finishing touches

Thursday, August 24th 2006

They make for a collection of strange bedfellows. But together, they are about to accomplish something unprecedented.

A conservation group, a jewelry company, a ski resort and the federal government have pooled their resources to reclaim an abandoned hard-rock mine complex in Mineral Basin that has been leaking heavy metals into the canyon watershed for decades. The project, which began in 2004, is now in its final stages.

The news media was invited to take a look at the nearly finished effort on Tuesday.
The cleanup has brought together Trout Unlimited, the New York-based Tiffany & Co., the Snowbird ski resort and the Environmental Protection Agency, marking the first private-public partnership in what the EPA hopes will become a broad-based effort to clean up the West’s abandoned hard-rock mines – which impact 40 percent of the headwater streams in the West, according to the agency.

“Trout Unlimited undertook this to prove that grass-roots organizations could become involved in mine reclamation efforts,” said Ted Fitzgerald, a retired Forest Service engineer who has managed the Mineral Basin cleanup since the project’s inception.

“This represents the middle ground.”
The pace of hard-rock mine reclamation in the United States has been slow because there was no middle ground prior to this project.

For all the benefits bestowed by the 1971 passage of the Clean Water Act, the law’s restrictive language regarding mine cleanups created potentially huge liability problems for anyone outside of the government or the mining industry contemplating a reclamation effort.
The Forest Service began reclaiming abandoned mines on public land in American Fork Canyon in 1999, completing its project in 2003. But left unaddressed were the multiple mine sites located on private land in the canyon, many of them within the boundaries of Snowbird.

The most problematic was the Pacific Mine complex, which was emitting high levels of lead and arsenic into canyon streams.

With the backing of Snowbird and Tiffany, Trout Unlimited entered into negotiations with the EPA to do a “Good Samaritan” cleanup of the Pacific Mine site. Two years later, the conservation group came away with what was essentially a Clean Water Act variance, getting the go-ahead from the agency to begin a reclamation project without facing liability concerns.

Legislation is now moving through Congress that would streamline that process, allowing private entities to begin their own cleanup projects on a large scale.

Good Samaritan laws, Fitzgerald said, “will set standards so it doesn’t take forever to get something like this going.”

Cost of the Mineral Basin cleanup is about $300,000, with half the cost borne by EPA – through funds procured by Sen. Bob Bennett – the other half by Tiffany, with contributions from Snowbird. Trout Unlimited is managing the project.

“We’ve always believed that part of the expectation is that we will craft [jewelry] in ways that are environmentally and socially responsible,” said Michael Kowalski, Tiffany’s chairman and CEO, who visited the site Tuesday. “Our industry has a responsibility to address mine cleanups both internationally and in the U.S. So when Trout Unlimited approached us about this, we were very excited.”

The Pacific Mine project, which dates back to the 1870s, takes in a mill site, a smelter, a series of settling ponds and four mines adjacent to the north fork of the American Fork River deemed the most troublesome in terms of heavy metal drainage.

About 35,000 cubic yards of mining waste will be moved and placed in a repository that will be lined with a high-density polyethylene membrane and capped with 3 feet of soil.

The Dutchman Flat repository, which contains 100,000 cubic yards of tailings from the Forest Service project, sits a short distance down the canyon from the Pacific Mine complex.

“I don’t want to sound overly dramatic, but this represents a possible solution to an enormous problem,” said Kowalski. “If we’re successful here, it’s going to raise awareness of this issue.”

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