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Shuttered mines still spewing poisons.

Byline: Diane Dietz The Register-Guard


Part one of a five-part series

THE SERIES TODAY: The Formosa mine in Douglas County is an old-style mining mess that was created barely a decade ago by foreign investors.

MONDAY: Federal and state officials and private companies work hard to avoid being pinned with the cost of cleaning up Oregon's numerous polluted metals mines.

TUESDAY: The abandoned Black Butte mine has been contaminating Cottage Grove Lake with mercury for decades, making fish unsafe for children to eat.

WEDNESDAY: A state effort to study and remediate widespread arsenic and mercury mining waste in the city of Sutherlin dies for lack of money.

THURSDAY: Soaring metals prices could spark a resurgence in metals mining in Oregon. Are regulators prepared?

This seems more like a scenario in a vulnerable Third World country than a drama playing out near the South Umpqua River.

A foreign, multinational copper mining company tunnels into a mountain south of Roseburg, quits the venture after 2 1/2 years and leaves behind an ecological disaster: Eighteen miles of salmon-rearing stream are dead, killed by acidic waters running from the mine.

The mess is on a Superfund scale of nastiness.

Now, taxpayers must come up with an estimated $15 million for the cleanup, although government experts don't guarantee that their remedy will work.

The metals-caked stream may never recover.

This is a dirty secret from the Oregon backcountry, where hills are pocked with at least 140 abandoned mines. A dozen of them gush fish-killing acidic waters.

This is the legacy of copper, gold, silver and zinc mining. Old mercury mines, meanwhile, create additional problems, rendering fish so contaminated that it's unwise for children to eat them.

In Lane County, the old Champion gold mine in the Bohemia Mining District washes mercury and other heavy metals into Dorena Lake. The Black Butte mine's mercury taints the fish and reputation of the popular Cottage Grove Lake.

Farther south, in Douglas County, the Bonanza mine yielded enough mercury-and-arsenic laden tailings to create railroad beds and driveways in the city of Sutherlin. And that's where the toxic stuff sits today, to the alarm of some residents.

Then there's the Formosa mine, a site so polluted that it impresses even regulators in the big mining states of Montana and Nevada.

No commercial hard-rock metal mining companies are licensed in Oregon today. The industry has no employment to speak of. But there's nothing in federal law to prevent a company from getting a permit, digging in and creating another poison-gusher.

"We have seen this story all too often, even in recent years," said Dusty Horwitt, analyst for the Environmental Working Group in Washington, D.C. "Mining companies leave behind epic disasters, and we have very little money to clean them up."

Withered vines

Such is the story at the Formosa mine, on Silver Butte at the headwaters of an Umpqua River tributary more than 2,000 feet above the valley floor.

In the rainy season, acid waters gurgle out of the old mine entrance at 65 gallons a minute. Annually, 5 million gallons pour out.

The water leaves a yellow residue as it ripples down a hill then falls into a pond, where the state Department of Environmental Quality has made a futile attempt to treat the water before it runs into streams. Acid water also seeps out of springs on the mountain's flanks.

The acid waters carry 30,000 pounds of dissolved copper and zinc out of the mine each year. The metals-laden water is deadly to fish, so the streams that gather waters around the base of Silver Butte are dead. Both Middle Creek and South Fork of Middle Creek are dead.

Ecologically, it's a big loss.

Before the Formosa Exploration Inc. started digging there in 1989, South Fork was a pristine stream rated by the Northwest Forest Plan as vital to spawning coho salmon, rainbow trout and steelhead. Now, it flows with sickly colors, changing as the acidity wanes downstream and the metals fall out in the stream bed.

"You'll see blue-green coating the rocks, and that's a copper precipitate," said Greg Aitken, DEQ cleanup manager. "Higher up you'll start to see white, and that's aluminium or zinc. You'll walk a little higher, and you'll see black. That's manganese."

On the mountaintop, mine workers demolished an 800-foot-long and 200-foot-wide ridge, creating a saddle for the mill and the mine buildings. A dozen years after the operation shut down, nothing can grow on the tainted rock and dirt.

Before Formosa Exploration went out of business, it tried extreme measures to revegetate the 76-acre site. The company spread 42,000 gallons of waste from the Riddle sewage plant. It tried to cultivate blackberry plants.

Nothing took. Not even blackberries.

Much harm in a short time

Oregon government cleanup experts are staggered by how much harm Formosa Exploration did in the 2 1/2 years it operated.

Before issuing a permit, state officials have the power to insist that companies have a plan and money to treat acid waters. Mining companies are notorious for disappearing when metal prices fall or a mine is tapped out.

When Formosa Exploration was seeking approval to mine in the late 1980s, Silver Butte already had shown a propensity for producing acid waters - a trickle, about 5 gallons a minute. Miners in the 1920s and 1930s started that flow when they exposed sulfur veins to groundwater.

Those miners dug to satisfy the nation's demand for metal: zinc for rust-proofing steel, copper for wiring homes, silver for photographs and gold to bind spouse to spouse.

The acid trickle they spurred already had thinned the fish population in nearby Middle Creek. But the South Fork of Middle Creek was untouched and teeming with fish, records show.

When Formosa Exploration sought to mine, the state Department of Geology and Mineral Industries, which approves mine reclamation plans and issues operating permits, weighed the potential for creating the poisonous acid waters. The agency called it "the major potential for serious long-term environmental degradation."

Formosa quelled the agency's concerns with a $500,000 bond and a plan: The company would push its finely ground, acid-producing tailings back into the mine; then, when the mine was closed, it would place 200-foot-long concrete stoppers into all the entrances and shafts, to seal the mine.

The theory was: The groundwater inside the butte would smother the sulfide tailings, and without oxygen they could not produce acidic runoff.

Yet, at that time - the late 1980s - private-sector mining experts should have known that probably wouldn't work, said Ron Cohen, professor of Environmental Science and Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines.

"I found articles in the late 1920s in Mining and Industry Journal, their very own industry journal, talking about why we don't go plug the mines, because we have all this water coming out," Cohen said.

The reality at Formosa was this: After the plugs were installed, fissures in other parts of the mountainside brought oxygen to the stew of groundwater and tailings, and they allowed acidic water to seep out.

So, the butte became a perpetual caldron for brewing metals-laden acid mine water that flows out and down the mountainside.

"It was silly in retrospect to jam all those small mining `fines' and residues into those tunnels," said Larry Tuttle, an activist who works to stop mines through his Portland-based Center for Environmental Equity.

But state geologists approved the plan after running it by DEQ officials.

"They were in such a hurry to do something up there - they had to do something to stabilize the site - that they made some really bad decisions," Tuttle said.

Today, government officials scratch their heads. "It is still puzzling how the groundwater impacts of backfilled tailings were so underestimated," James Harvey, who oversees public land at the mining site for U.S. Bureau of Land Management, wrote in an internal e-mail. "But hindsight is always 20/20."

Oregon's geology department had little experience regulating metal mines. In the agency's 69-year history, it had been asked to permit only three metal mines, and two were small gold mines that produced nothing. Instead, gravel, oil and gas mining was and is the agency's franchise.

By then in California and Montana, the problems with acid mine drainage had become plain. During the 1980s, California officials were trying to stop the Iron Mountain mine from leaching a ton of copper and zinc a day into the Sacramento River, upstream from Sacramento's water supply. Cleanup took a decade and cost $1 billion.

From the Mike Horse mine in Montana, a watery soup of lead, zinc, copper and magnesium flowed at up to 120 gallons a minute. A storm in 1975 breached a dam and washed metallic water into the Blackfoot River, wiping out a cutthroat trout fishery.

Why did Oregon officials allow mining at a mountainside that had a history of generating acidic water?

Regulators `always err on the side of `This will be OK.' ' Tuttle said. "That's been the attitude of permitting agencies across the West"

The geology department's deputy chief, Gary Lynch, said the agency knew that metals-carrying acidic water is a "really nasty critter," but Formosa Exploration was cooperative in the beginning and the agency figured that its cleanup plans would work.

State bonding rules didn't require Formosa to account for worst-case scenarios, Lynch added. "It looked at everything `going right,' ' he said. "When something goes wrong, the costs go up dramatically."

How the mess was done

Preparations for mining at Silver Butte began in earnest in 1984, when Vancouver, B.C., mining expert Kuang Ine Lu bought 68 mining claims - about 20 acres each - on the top and flanks of Silver Butte.

He also arranged the purchase of 120 adjoining acres from Silver Butte Mining & Milling Co. David Wiley, prominent Salem activist with the Oregon Hunters Association, was one time head of the mining and milling company.

Kuang amassed a total of 1,400 acres, plus he notified the BLM that he would use the main mine entrance, which is on land owned by the BLM. BLM approval was not needed. All Kuang had to do was notify the federal agency of his intent.

Kuang performed studies and concluded that Silver Butte was blessed with massive polymetallic sulfide deposits, laid down by a volcano eons ago.

As president of Formosa Resources Corp., based in Vancouver, B.C., Kuang secured $3 million for mine operating expenses from two major Japanese companies, Washi Kosan Co. and Marubeni Corp.

Kuang formed Formosa Exploration Inc. - a wholly owned subsidiary of Formosa Resources - to operate in the United States. Its job was to get mining permits, to dig up and ship metals to Japan, and to handle site reclamation.

Formosa's corporate structure was typical of mining companies, separating assets from liabilities. The subsidiary passed assets - minerals - up the line to its parent, and the parent passed liabilities - the cleanup - down, said Jay Wilson, who worked for Formosa Exploration as a mining engineering technician.

Formosa Exploration secured a permit to dig from the state geology department in April 1990.

The company's 35 miners honeycombed the mountain with tunnels large enough for dump trucks. They could drive in one entrance, wind 1,400 feet through the mountain and exit through another opening. Each day, they produced 350 to 400 tons of ore, enough to fill nearly 12 dump trucks, Wilson said.

The ore was processed at the mining site.

"It was ground to material that's almost as fine as flour, and then it goes into flotation cells and it's floated," Wilson said. Workers skimmed mineral concentrate from the surface, then hauled the concentrate to a Japan-bound ship.

The fast pace at the mill overran promises in the mill's operating permit, government records show. Crews dug as much as twice the tonnage per day that the agreements allowed, Lynch said. The miners could not fit the excess tailings back in the mine, as they had promised they would, the records show.

In a surprise inspection, the DEQ found "piles of ore, rejected concentrate, and tailings that have been deliberately buried and piled up on old roadways and pushed over side slopes," the inspector's notes show.

The dumped material was easy to spot, he wrote. A white powdery sulfate residue formed on the soil - "like on top of a car battery terminal." Twenty tons of caustic material coated the bottom of Middle Creek.

State geologists shut down the mine. "Their tailings pile was growing way out of hand," said Lynch, the geology department official. "They were operating illegally."

The agency then approved Formosa's reclamation effort apparently without realizing the extent of the ongoing stream damage. And the agency persuaded the company to boost its bond to about $1 million. Still, that wasn't nearly enough to clean up the site.

Later, when studies revealed the stream-kill, the agency invited the company to a meeting to discuss "long-term water treatment work."

The Formosa subsidiary dissolved instead.

Cleanup fell to the DEQ. The agency spent $1.6 million over six years grappling with the acid drainage, then stopped before it found a fix.

Now, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency may try its hand.

On May 30, Oregon asked the federal agency to take on the cleanup. The EPA is considering listing Formosa as a Superfund site.

"This site is a big deal," said Ken Marcy, Seattle-based EPA site assessment manager. "It's basically decimated 15-plus miles of stream, and it's still going. It's still leaching. And it's leaching lots and lots and lots and lots."

The bottom line is crystal clear, the DEQ's Aitken said. The people will pay. "Here we are as taxpayers holding the bag," he said.

FORMOSA MINE Location: Seven miles south of Riddle and 25 miles south of Roseburg History: Commercial metals mine in operation for 2 1/2 years in the early 1990s; first commercial mining was in the 1920s and then off and on for decades by a string of different companies Current status: Shut Ownership: Parts by the defunct Formosa Exploration Inc. mining company and parts by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management Pollution: Acidic, metals-laden runoff killed 18 miles of South Umpqua River tributaries
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Title Annotation:Environment; Costs soar as acidic waters gush freely from 12 of Oregon's abandoned mines
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jun 25, 2006
Previous Article:THE BULLETIN.
Next Article:Healthy start for hospital's fundraiser.

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