Minnie Moore Mine owner Carl Johnston is looking toward the future this week as the Environmental Protection Agency began cleanup of an offending tailings pile on a portion of his 283-acre property west of Bellevue.
In August, 5th District Court Judge Robert Elgee ruled that Johnston may continue to use his historic gold and silver mine, composed of 19 patented mining claims, as he sees fit. Johnston was the defendant in a Blaine County lawsuit seeking to force him to halt all mining activities on the property, whether for precious ore or sand and gravel extraction.
For now, however, the tailings pile will be covered with some 21 yards of clay and topsoil.
"We've had many discussions with Carl about how to get this done. The idea is to reshape this tailings pile so it sheds water and minimizes infiltration," said Greg Weigel, on-scene coordinator with the EPA's Idaho Operations Office. He said that after several months of discussions, the agency decided to go forward with cleanup and chase after those responsible for a share of the remediation costs later. "We started work on Monday."
The site is now officially an EPA Superfund removal site, different from a Superfund site on the EPA's National Priorities List, such as the recently completed Triumph Mine cleanup in the East Fork area. Capping the Minnie Moore tailings pile, nestled in a curve of Broadford Road, west of Bellevue and south of Hailey, is a project that can be completed within 12 months and for less than $2 million, according to the EPA.
The fill material came from the other side of the Wood River Valley in Woodside, where the Blaine County School District is building a new elementary school. Johnston paid to have the free fill transported to the mine where it was determined to be clean fill by the EPA, appropriate for covering the dusty tailings.
Weigel estimates that the expedited project will be completed by the end of October and cost between $200,000 and $300,000. One of the issues of concern is an "action level" of lead and arsenic on the pile. Weigel said the EPA discovered 18,000 parts per million of lead in the former mill site debris.
The work of isolating and covering the pile is intended to prevent the possibility of tailings from leaving the mine site in the form of dust or runoff. Once the job is completed, then the EPA will pursue recouping some of the costs both from Johnston and Federal Resources Corp., the mining company initially responsible for creating the mining waste.
"We prefer that the responsible party take care of the problem," Weigel said, showing where the EPA contractor, Environmental Quality Management, Inc., of Seattle, was moving earth to create an appropriate slope angle up to the pile that will be leveled and seeded this fall with native grasses. He added that because Federal Resources has been out of the picture for many years, chasing the money for cleanup is a more difficult part of the project. In the meantime, however, the EPA has the resources to complete the primary cleanup goal, which is particularly important now because the mine is in an area that is increasingly residential.
"When we first looked at it, there were motorcycle jumps up there and that was not good," Weigel said, considering the potential hazard to public health of finely milled tailings on the site. "It is a great advantage that Carl got the fill material."
The mine has been a source of gravel for landscaping, construction and riprap since the 1970s, when Johnston and his business partner James H. Bilbray acquired it. But mining operations have been a source of contention for neighbors and the county, which posted a cease and desist order at the mine in 1999.
"All the neighbors and Blaine County should be very happy with the work going on down here," Johnston said. "They're doing a fine job. They put through a real good team."
Johnston said when the job is completed a grassy park space will be the result. He anticipates a pasture "the community can be proud of by next spring."
Johnston said he already has contracts for sand and gravel sales that he plans to pursue, but he added that he also has offers from developers who want to buy the land for residential development.
He said, however, that before he sells any of the property he would like to sit down with Citizens for Smart Growth, the county and the Blaine-Ketchum Housing Authority. His goal is to see whether or not it is feasible to reinstate the portion of the original Broadford townsite on the mine property to build community housing.
"There is a lot of possibility for activating the townsite again," he said in an interview Wednesday. Johnston was sporting a T-shirt that promotes restoring the townsite originally formed in 1879. "There is strong demand here in the community for low income housing. Since we got one of the hurdles done, now we can go for the other. It is an ideal spot (for community housing). (Residents) would have their own park along side a stream."
If housing does not pan out, Johnston said he can always go back to mining. Portland Cement is interested in the 100 tons of argillite, an ingredient in concrete, that is on the property. And, as silver prices continue to climb, Johnston could avail himself of a 13-foot deep, 35-foot-long block of Galena silver ore that has also been identified on the property. He also has orders from Boise for decomposed granite and rock bark used for landscaping.