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Mining public comments

If you have any thoughts on the challenging task of cleaning up the long inactive Blue Ledge Mine high in the Applegate River drainage just south of the California state line, the U.S. Forest Service wants to hear from you.

A 30-day public comment period began Wednesday to gather public mood on the agency's recommended removal plan of the toxic wastes left by the copper mine operation was announced Wednesday by Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest officials. The $8.5 million project, funded by federal stimulus money to increase local employment, is expected to create up to 85 jobs, most of which will be contracted out through private firms.

Waste rock from the old copper mine, which operated early in the last century, is leaching sulfuric acid, arsenic, lead, cadmium, copper and zinc into the Applegate River watershed in violation of the Clean Water Act.

The agency's recently completed engineering evaluation/cost analysis for the mine recommends constructing less than one mile of roads on private land to provide access to the rock piles leaching the toxic materials. The contaminated material would be removed and placed on private land at a stable site and covered with impermeable materials, according to the recommendation.

The goal is to complete the work by the fall of 2011.

"We intend to closely look at the comments," said project spokesman Chuck Anderson. "We will study those that are meaningful, valid and substantial and see if we can glean things that will help us do the work."

A rough estimate indicates that some 50,000 cubic yards of material will have to be removed, he said, adding that bulldozers and excavators will be used along with drag lines on the steep slope.

Any practical comments offering other ways to remove the material are welcome, he said.

"We think this is a good project but almost always someone will come through with objections of some kind," he said. "This will show us the level of concern out there."

Any work at the site would follow the guidelines in the National Preservation Act, passed by Congress in 1966 to preserve the nation's cultural heritage, officials said.

Located at about 4,000 feet above sea level, the Blue Ledge Mine is in the Siskiyou Mountains Ranger District in the Joe Creek drainage. It's about three miles south of the California state line in the upper Applegate River watershed, upstream from the Applegate Dam, and roughly 33 miles south of Jacksonville.

The Forest Service is working with the Environmental Protection Agency on the project. Although the EPA has jurisdiction over private land and the mine is patented, meaning the property is now private property, the Forest Service is the lead agency for clean-up operations because of the natural resources impact is on the national forest.

The Blue Ledge Mine began operating in 1906 and continued through 1919 when activity at the site began dropping with falling demand for copper during World War I. However, there were limited periods of activity at the mine in the late 1920s and 1940s.

The hard-rock mine was named for the characteristic blue sheen of weathered chalcopyrite, the copper ore that miners took out of the Joe Creek drainage.

The agency has spent a decade researching the old mine's environmental impact. Researchers from Southern Oregon University have also been studying the mine's environmental impact. The studies have concluded the aquatic biology of Joe Creek has been severely disturbed and will continue unless action is taken to stop the toxic materials from leaching into the watershed.

The engineering evaluation and cost analysis and other administrative documents for the Blue Ledge Copper Mine are available at www.fs.fed.us/r6/rogue-siskiyou/projects/mines/. It also can be viewed during business hours at the forest headquarters in Medford or the district office at 941 Upper Applegate Road.

Comments can be sent via regular mail to USDA Forest Service, Blue Ledge Mine, 3040 Biddle Road, Medford, Or. 97540. E-mail comments can be sent to comments-pacificnorthwest-rogueriver-siskiyou@fs.fed.us.

Deadline for commenting is Sept. 26.

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

History buff Dana Hight climbs down waste rock at the base of the Blue Ledge Mine in this April 2009 photo. The Forest Service is seeking comments on its plans to clean up the toxic wastes seeping from the abandoned mine. - MT File Photo