The cost of the Blue Ledge project is more than the entire U.S. Forest Service's annual national budget for cleaning up abandoned mine sites, says project administrator Pete Jones.

The cost of the Blue Ledge project is more than the entire U.S. Forest Service's annual national budget for cleaning up abandoned mine sites, says project administrator Pete Jones.

However, the bulk of the $11.1 million is coming from federal stimulus funds with the rest — $1.3 million — being contributed by American Smelting and Refining Corp., which owned the smelter in Tacoma, Wash., where the estimated 11,150 tons of ore were shipped, he said.

The mine has been owned, leased or operated by at least 14 different parties over the years. It is currently owned by a trust based in Salem that is working closely with the agencies involved in the clean-up project, Jones said.

The mine went into production around 1900, followed by full production during World War I, a time when copper demand was high. There also was a resurgence of mining activity on the mountain in the 1920s, '30s and '40s.

For years, the tailings have been leaching toxic materials in violation of the Clean Water Act, severely impacting the aquatic biology of Joe Creek, Jones said.

Some three miles downstream from the mine is the remote community of Joe Bar, a historic hamlet of half a dozen homes near where Joe Creek flows into Elliott Creek.

The stream sediment and fish will be tested all the way downstream from the mine to Applegate Reservoir a half dozen miles distant to see how far the toxins have migrated, he said. An estimated 20,000 tons of the tailings have gone downstream, he noted.

Plans call for the contaminated tailings at the mine to be removed and placed in a 3.5-acre bowl being carved into level land on the lower end of the mine.

"We will be laying a clay liner down in there first," Jones said. "It has a very low permeability. The next layer will be crushed limestone. The limestone will react with any fluid that may pass through and neutralize the acids."

In addition, there will be a collection system installed which will include a tank to catch any waste that may escape, he added.

"We will be able to detect those fluids and monitor them for their toxicity and volume," he said.

Once the waste rock is in the bowl, another clay layer will be slathered on top to encapsulate the hazardous material. A 6-foot-thick layer of soil removed from the bowl will be placed on top of the clay.

"Then we will put two feet of topsoil on top of that," he said. "We want the grasses and shrubs to get back on it as quickly as possible."

The Forest Service is growing 15,000 plants for reclamation of the site, he said.

"Nature is the best defense against erosion," he said.

Long-term maintenance will include cutting small trees every decade or so to prevent tree root systems from weakening the seal, he said.

"We are working with the EPA now to see if this site qualifies to be on the Superfund list," he said, adding that determination likely will be made next spring. If it is selected as a Superfund site, the Environmental Protection Agency and the state of California would then be responsible for long-term maintenance and monitoring, he said.

How long will the repository be safe?

"For the foreseeable future," Jones said. "Clay is a natural product which has the ability to self-seal if it is punctured."

Forest Road 1060, which leads to the mine, has been closed temporarily because of safety concerns.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.