Saturday, May 30, 2020
Making the Land Safe-Ketchum Ranger District Finishes Massive Clean-Up
Deb Taylor said she asked for an enormous amount of slash to be placed on the mine site near Wolftone Creek.
Monday, October 7, 2019



Kurt Nelson and Deb Taylor scampered up a steep hillside of freshly turned dirt anchored with straw and straw wattles that stretched 200 feet across the disturbed patch of earth.

“Just think. We’re walking on top of 6,500 cubic yards of toxic waste,” said Nelson, as he stood atop the graveyard containing mine tailings with dangerously high levels of arsenic, cadmium, lead and zinc.

Workers reconstructed an already existing canal at the Red Cloud mine site to mitigate the risk of mudslides and other damage from water runoff.

But there was absolutely no risk to either Forest Service official as the tailings had just been buried in a coffin or repository designed to trap their harmful effects below ground for generations to come.

That wasn’t the case earlier this summer.

The tailings had been concentrated in Red Cloud Gulch 1.5 miles up the Wolftone Creek Road in Deer Creek Canyon northwest of Hailey for close to a century.

And deer hunters and others had been camping and riding ATVs and dirt bikes there, as evidenced by large fire rings, trash and a myriad of ATV and four-wheel drive tracks in the area, said Nelson, district ranger for the Ketchum Ranger District.

“It’s amazing when you get on it. It looks a lot bigger than if you’re viewing it from a distance,” said District Ranger Kurt Nelson of the repository area, which easily covers a couple of football fields.

“A few years ago, we got an email from the EPA saying that an analysis of soil and water samples taken by the Department of Environmental Quality had found extremely high parts per million of lead, arsenic and other minerals out here, and they had some funds to do a cleanup.  So, we split the $550,000 cost of cleanup between the EPA and the Forest Service,” said Deb Taylor, Sawtooth National Forest botanist.

Much lower elevations—say, 200 parts per million of lead—are considered okay for recreational use, Taylor added. “But you wouldn’t want to live on those tailings, although I know some people have built their homes in the Midwest on tailings.”

Contractors hired for the project dug in, removing up to five feet of tailings in the Wolftone Creek Road area,about a half-mile before a little miner’s cabin tucked back in the woods.During the removal process EPA officials took frequent samples of the soil and tailings, running them through a portable lab to determine how deep they needed to go to capture as much of the contamination they could. They only needed to remove six inches of the road surface to reach the clean material.

Since there was no place in the Wolftone Creek area to place the tailings, officials decided to move the tailings to an area along War Dance Creek where 5,000 cubic yards of tailings from the Wood River Zinc Mill had already been deposited in a repository.

The cleanup was part of an Interagency Agreement with the EPA to remove metals-contaminated tailings at the MG Smith Mill Site and place them in a covered waste repository in War Dance Gulch.

Crews smashed their way through sagebrush, building a ramp to the new site on the side of a hillside. And they charted a spot on the hill as high as they could go without having to have a bulldozer push the material up.

They dug six feet down, moving dirt and big boulders that could have stood in for dinosaur eggs. They lined the hole with an impervious liner made out of geosynthetic clay to prevent seepage of contaminated materials and filled it with the tailings.

They folded the clay liner over the top and placed a synthetic drainage layer known as a Transnet over it.

They then covered it with two feet of dirt, rolling it frequently with a roller to compact it. They covered that with a layer of top soil and compost. And Taylor seeded it with bluebunch wheat grass, Idaho fescue, lupine, yarrow and Sandberg bluegrass.

The crew rolls the clay liner over the tailings, then adds a translet layer to keep the water off the clay liner.

They then ringed the area with large rocks to help divert rainwater and snowmelt.

The place was a beehive of activity for a month of 10-hour days six days a week with two excavators, a bulldozer, front end loader and water truck in constant motion. Four dump trucks worked their way back and forth along Wolftone Creek and Deer Creek roads as they made 650 trips, each carrying 20 cubic yards of tailings at a time, to the burial ground.

The loads were covered so the tailings wouldn’t contaminate any point along their route. The EPA continually tested the air quality around the work sites to determine whether workers needed to wear protective masks.

“I came out every day to check on it, and I had to wait to get behind one of the trucks there was so much incoming and outgoing traffic,” Taylor said.  “The big boys on Tonka toys, as I call them, were really conscientious about their work because they knew we cared about the area. And they were really pleased that we were pleased with the finished product.”

Workers covered the site of the tailings with dirt, two-feet of clean topsoil, compost and seedlings. They also covered it with hundreds of pounds of willow limbs that a masticator slashed along the edge of the road to improve driving visibility.

“One of the workers told me they’d never put so much slash on a spot. But I didn’t want the area to look inviting as a campsite. And the seeds will have a better chance to take root with the shade the slash provides. Otherwise, it’ll dry out,” Taylor said.

This is the fourth such project that has been done in the Ketchum Ranger District, said Taylor. A similar cleanup was done in Warm Springs’ Bassett Gulch in 2000 and Rooks Creek in 2017. The Wood River zinc project was done in 2011.

The Red Cloud Mine, which was served by the M.G. Smith Mill, produced $815,802 between 1880 and 1902 with the greatest period of activity between 1888 and 1889. The tailings dump was reworked in 1906 and there has been intermittent mining since, especially in the early 1940s when the caved mine portals were reopened for a brief period.

Some 1,740 tons of ore was removed from the mine between 1884 and 1918. Miners extracted 1,695 ounces of gold, 506,083 ounces of silver, 13,351,655 pounds of lead and 82,235 pounds of copper. And M.G. Smith estimated the clean pyrite carried an ounce of gold per ton.

The mine set in the limestone and calcareous shale of the Wood River Formation has been developed on 10 levels opened by tunnels and shafts. The Libby Jane tunnel is the deepest—nearly 1,100 feet below the outcrop of the load. It runs north for 1,825 feet, then extends several hundred feet southward with various branches to the east and west.

Moist of the ore came from level No. 9 which lies 706 feet below the surface.


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