The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed adding the long-abandoned Blue Ledge copper mine, located high in the Applegate River drainage, to the Superfund priority list.
Listing a site makes it eligible for federal cleanup funds, according to an EPA spokeswoman. The announcement Tuesday afternoon launches a 60-day comment period for the proposed listing.
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 that was leaching toxic chemicals from the mine into an on-site repository.
That work was completed last fall, but additional work is expected once the snow melts in the Siskiyou Mountains.
"This (listing) would augment the work we've been doing out there very nicely," said Pete Jones, geologist in charge of cleaning up abandoned mines for the U.S. Forest Service in Oregon and far Northern California.
While the Forest Service had the funding for cleanup and removal of the toxic wastes, it will hand over the long-term oversight of the project to the state of California and the EPA, he explained. The EPA will keep tabs on the site to ensure that toxins are no longer leaching into the watershed, he added.
Tailings at the Blue Ledge site, located 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.
The chemical ooze 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 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, officials said. Applegate Reservoir is some eight miles downstream.
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.
Jones estimated last fall that 10,000 cubic yards of potentially toxic material was left to put in the repository, which can hold up to 60,000 cubic yards.
The 700-acre Blue Ledge mine is located on privately owned land surrounded by the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. The EPA has jurisdiction on private land when it comes to environmental pollution.
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 mine was most active during World War I and has been dormant for decades. Prospectors discovered the copper deposit in 1898 and built several small communities in the area during the mine's heyday.
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.