The hazard has been clear for decades, but cleanup of a historic milling site in the White Cloud Mountains is only now scheduled to begin.
Livingston Mill is a historic ore-processing facility composed of two mills and five large tailings deposits. The 30-acre site, 26 miles southeast of the Salmon River hamlet of Clayton, is about to become the largest cleanup project in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area's 36-year history. Reclamation is projected at $1.2 million, and efforts are scheduled to begin this summer.
"It's probably the most costly and/or has the highest quantities of tails on-site," said Pat Trainor, the Livingston Mill CERCLA on-scene coordinator.
What's more, the hazard is not new, and it is debatable whether or not the Forest Service has posted the site adequately. The Forest Service conducted a preliminary assessment of the site in 2002, and reports detailing heavy-metals toxicity go back as far as the 1970s.
The site, which is adjacent to a popular White Cloud Mountains trailhead, is not signed as hazardous, and Trainor said he did not know why such a measure had not been taken.
"I would think it would be a prudent thing to do, at least because of blowing winds," he said.
Trainor, who works on mine-cleanup projects throughout the region, said the hazard is clear.
"To me, it looks like the lead levels are as high as any site that I've worked on," he said. "It could be acutely toxic to humans and to human health."
The U.S. Forest Service conducted a preliminary assessment of the Livingston Mill site in 2002, and that evaluation concluded that a more formal site inspection was warranted. Boise-based Millennium Science and Engineering Inc. completed the inspection in 2004.
"Results of the site inspection indicated elevated levels of metals, particularly lead and arsenic, in the mine tailings and contaminated soils," stated a June 2006 Engineering Evaluation/Cost Analysis written by Millennium Science and Engineering and adopted by the Forest Service. "A screening level human health and ecological risk assessment indicated significant risks to human and ecological receptor(s) at the site."
The 58-page Engineering Evaluation/Cost Analysis, procured by the Idaho Mountain Express through a Freedom of Information Act request, is called an EE/CA in Forest Service parlance. It details contamination at the site and sets out four cleanup alternatives ranging from "no action" to complete removal of the tailings. The document cites a preferred alternative that combines two methods of on-site treatment of the hazardous metals.
"The primary risk to human health at the site is from exposure to arsenic and lead in the mine tailings at (two of the tailings deposits) and contaminated soils around (one of the mills)," the EE/CA states.
The document says arsenic concentrations exceed risk criteria at "extremely high risk levels," and lead concentrations exceed risk criteria at "moderate to high risk levels." Also present are copper, zinc and selenium, as well as reagents like cyanide used in the milling process.
Trainor said the most significant risk to human health is probably caused by wind-borne dust particles that could be inhaled by people in the area, and the EE/CA states the area is used periodically by off-road vehicle users, as well as occasional hikers and campers.
"Every contaminant has what we call pathway," Trainor said. "Inhalation is the biggest factor. When it gets into your lungs, obviously it's absorbed into the blood and your system more rapidly than if it's on your skin."
Lead is a highly toxic metal particularly harmful to children and unborn babies. In adults, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, it can cause difficulties during pregnancy and trigger high blood pressure, digestive problems, nerve disorders, memory problems and muscle pain.
Arsenic is a toxic heavy metal that can cause headaches, confusion, sleepiness and convulsions. It can also cause vomiting, diarrhea and kidney, liver and lung problems. In extreme cases arsenic poisoning can result in death.
In the words of the Sawtooth National Forest in an online project summary: "This is a very large cleanup project" that involves treatment of approximately 60,000 tons of tailings.
"Environmentally, as in many historical sites, the tailings ponds lie within or along riparian habitats and wetlands. Chemicals, mining reagents and explosives have been inventoried for removal," the summary states, adding that the site has recently been a Forest Service focus for occupancy trespass, drug activities and other safety issues.
Signs of the time
The issue of whether or not Livingston Mill should have been signed as hazardous is rapidly coming to a close, as cleanup will commence before the upcoming recreation season. What's more, the Forest Service previously had the area signed "no trespassing" up to 2002, when the site inspection was performed.
According to Sawtooth National Forest Regional Mining Engineer Jeff Gabardi, the signs were taken down following the site inspection, and rock barriers were installed to keep vehicles out.
"That's when we blocked people out," he said. "The signs were being vandalized, and people removed them. We had made an attempt to do that."
Environmental study of the area elevated the concern for getting something done as soon as possible.
"That's why the funding has come to the top of the heap," Gabardi said.
SNRA Area Ranger Sara Baldwin agreed that the site should have been signed as hazardous, "but hindsight's always twenty-twenty," she said, adding that the mill continues to be posted with "no trespassing" signs, and the SNRA Travel Plan indicates that off-road vehicle use there is not allowed.
The cleanup project could be completed by the end of the coming summer.
"Essentially, in layman's terms, we're picking up the toxic tailings and putting them in a central depository and capping it, all on site," Trainor said.
The EE/CA states that although wildlife criteria are lower than human health criteria for some of the toxic heavy metals, "human health risks from exposure to arsenic and lead in the tailings are driving the removal action."
The preferred treatment alternative will combine "in-situ" treatment of shallow tailings and on-site disposal of bulk tailings beneath a composite liner. In-situ treatment means that the relatively small amount of shallow deposits will be graded to a "stable configuration" and treated to a depth of 12 inches with a neutralizing agent, then planted with native vegetation.
On-site disposal of bulk takings will involve excavation and consolidation of the tailings, and then placing a composite cover over the contaminants.
"It's a plastic sandwich, if you will," Trainor said. "It's about a quarter- to a half-inch thick. It's impervious. The key there really is the soil cover. Most of the moisture will go into the soil and then it's transported out either through evaporation or the vegetative cover. That's really the key to a successful cap."
The project will go out to contract sometime this winter or spring, and activity will commence early.
"There's going to be quite a bit of activity," Trainor said.
Most of the work will be accomplished with some restrictions on the road leading to Railroad Ridge, but not the Big Boulder Creek trailhead. The plan is to start work early so as to be clear of the trailhead by June.
"It'll be a summer process, so if we get through all the contracting and get it all together, it'll be one field season," Trainor said. "The repository will be constructed, and all the veg work will be done. There will still be some revegetation the year after the project's completed."
Baldwin said it is exciting to have the project almost under way.
"We're thrilled it's elevated in priority," she said. "We're glad it will be addressed and cleaned up this summer. It will be disruptive for recreationists this summer. It will be closed for at least a while when cleanup is going."
Mill is a testament to mining heritage
Livingston Mill is within the boundaries of the 756,000-acre Sawtooth National Recreation Area and is a living testament to Idaho's pioneering days.
The site is owned by the Swanson family from Idaho Falls, but was originally owned by Albert and William Livingston as far back as 1882. Most of the original town-site structures have survived the cold, harsh winters endemic to the area.
The site, which is to undergo a massive $1.2 million cleanup effort this summer, contains two historic mills, associated structures and five tailings depository areas. A former mining camp with several cabins is located directly across a creek from the tailings. The site is on a tributary of the East Fork of the Salmon River—habitat for endangered chinook salmon—and it lies in a valley between Railroad Ridge, renowned for rare plant species, and Red Ridge.
Early production records show that after discovery, rich lead-silver ore was shipped by mule train to a smelter in Clayton, and that site, too, is under cleanup, administered by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The area went through intensive on-again, off-again mining throughout the late 1880s and into the 1950s, producing approximately 86,700 tons of lead-zinc silver ore.
The first mill facility was reportedly built in 1924, states an Engineering Evaluation/Cost Analysis that details reclamation of the site. High metals concentrations in samples from those areas suggest the first mill was somewhat ineffective in the recovery of lead, zinc and sliver. The site temporarily closed in 1930 and operated intermittently during the 1930s and 1940s.
Following expansion and construction of a new mill in about 1950, operations began to reprocess some of the tailings from the original mill and reportedly recovered significant amounts of lead and zinc.
Based on visual observations at the site during a 2002 site inspection, the U.S. Forest Service determined that as each tailing area reached capacity, an earthen dike had been breached to allow excess tailings to flow into the next tailings area. At some point, presumably during operations, nearby Jim Creek was diverted from its original course and into Big Boulder Creek.
"According to the Forest Service tailings flowed into the former Jim Creek stream channel and riparian areas adjacent to the stream during a large storm event in the 1980s," the engineering evaluation states.
Active operations at the Livingston Mill site stopped in the 1950s, and the Swanson family picked up the mill and nearby patented mines through bankruptcy proceedings.
According to the evaluation, the Forest Service published several reports about the Livingston Mine area in the 1970s. According to those reports, high levels of lead and zinc were present.
"Additional data in the literature also confirms the presence of metals (lead) in stream sediment samples from both Jim Creek and Big Boulder Creek," the document states.
The historic integrity of the site will be preserved during reclamation efforts, which will commence this summer.