A pool of discolored water sits outside the Triumph Mine tunnel. The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality plugged the tunnel in 2003, but it still leaks about 3 gallons per minute. Express photo by Willy Cook
Residents of Triumph have been here before. The small residential area about 10 miles southeast of Ketchum in the East Fork of the Big Wood River drainage is the center of a recent proposal by DeNovo Properties to clean up a portion of mine-contaminated land in nearby Independence Gulch.
To people who live in the area, it must seem a bit like "déjà vu all over again."
Not long ago, Triumph locals found themselves embroiled in their first mine cleanup controversy. In 1988, the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, with funding help from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, started looking at potential health hazards in and around Triumph. The cleanup process spanned 13 years, though there were just two years of actual work on the site—but no one, not residents, not the DEQ and not even a casual visitor to the site—is likely to call it a successful process.
The previous cleanup experience leaves many people wondering why would DeNovo Properties, a company headquartered in the Midwest, would try again.
From 1882 until 1957, the Triumph Mine produced ore rich in silver, zinc and lead. As was common at the time, the ores were concentrated using a flotation process that left residual waste material called tailings.
In its preliminary assessment of the Triumph Mine site in 1988, the DEQ found high levels of arsenic, manganese and zinc in the surface water. The results included a well test that revealed high levels of lead in the drinking water. The lead level was so high that the Centers for Disease Control took an avid interest in the cleanup. The site was given one of the highest hazard scores in the history of EPA cleanup assessments, making it a candidate for the federal government's Superfund, established in 1980 to address extremely toxic areas.
"It was created to clean up the worst of the worst," said Rob Hansen, who directs the DEQ's waste management efforts and who supervised the Triumph Mine cleanup.
Residents of Triumph, however, disagreed with the listing. They believed the well water test with high levels of lead was an aberration, and indeed, subsequent tests never found lead levels above drinking water standards. They also had been living in the area for years with few problems; even blood lead tests showed no elevated levels of chemicals.
They feared that being listed as a Superfund site carried a stigma. Several residents wrote letters and staged protests.
"If you get listed on it (the Superfund list), you can't get loans, can't sell your property," said longtime Triumph resident Pat Murphy. "There is a big black cloud hanging over you with Superfund. So there was a huge imperative financially and ecologically to get it into the hands of the DEQ."
Murphy served as a liaison between the citizens of Triumph, the DEQ and the EPA.
Mark Masarik, community involvement coordinator for the EPA during the Triumph cleanup, said the anti-EPA sentiment wasn't unexpected.
"It seemed to be a more prevalent issue in the West," Masarik said. "This was the first site I was on where I thought if we worked hard enough at establishing a relationship with the town, we could overcome this issue and work with the community. But at that point and that time it wasn't going to work, so we pulled out."
The EPA allowed the DEQ to take over with an agreement that it would follow EPA's guidelines for a Superfund site cleanup.
Triumph residents knew a cleanup was necessary. They knew a mine tunnel was leaking contaminated water over the county road and onto adjacent lands, and that there were high levels of arsenic in the soil.
The cleanup took place in two phases. The first began in October 1998 and ended a month later. The second began in May 1999 and ended in December. During that time, crews removed 6 to 12 inches of topsoil from contaminated areas, and more if it was found in a resident's home or garden. A protective layer of plastic material was then placed over the remaining soil and covered by a new 6-inch layer of fresh soil. The DEQ also consolidated the remaining tailings into two large piles, resulting in 60 acres of onsite storage.
Hansen said he was pleased with the project and its timeliness.
"Once the cleanup got going, it went pretty fast," he said. "Just a couple of years. The thing that took so long was the process, coming up with the plans that made sense to the community that would still meet the requirements of our agreement with EPA."
But it isn't clear that the cleanup is complete. Residents complain of a lack of vegetation on the site and continued leaking of contaminated water from the mine tunnel.
"The dirt wasn't researched so when they remediated the yards, they didn't vegetate," Murphy said. "Here we are 13 years after they moved the dirt and if you look at the tailings piles, you will see that in many areas they still have not revegetated except for knapweed and other noxious growth."
Hansen acknowledged the problem.
"Clearly there are areas that the vegetation is not doing well," he said. "Part of it is that the clean soil barrier that was put on top of the tailings pile was only 6 inches deep, so there is not a lot of good water-holding capacity there."
The fact that only 6 to 12 inches of clean soil exists on most of the land is also an issue of concern. The DEQ has stated its willingness to work with residents who wish to excavate their land deeper than 6 to 12 inches for gardening or other projects. That has resulted in some residents' taking the contaminated soil and putting it on one of the tailings sites themselves.
"They expect us to live here and if we see a problem to let them know," Murphy said.
Earlier this month, the DEQ published its "First Five-Year Review Report for the Triumph Mine Tailings Piles Site." The report acknowledged that the current individual cleanup by property owners is neither feasible nor adequate.
The report also noted that the mine tunnel is still leaking polluted water onto the premises, even though the DEQ installed a plug in 2003. The five-year review acknowledged that the tunnel continues to leak as many as three to five gallons per minute. Prior to the plug, however, it leaked 90 to 100 gallons per minute.
Hansen said that even though the leak has improved, it's still a problem.
"There is a lot of iron in it," he said. "You wouldn't want to drink it."
Photographs from the site show orange-tinted water pooling around the area, seeping into the soil and toward the East Fork of the Big Wood River. And several fields, especially where the tailings piles sit, are still barren. In its five-year report, the DEQ stated that it and residents will have to continue to monitor the area for years.
DEQ said it will continue to monitor the tunnel, but its primary source of financing for the cleanup is the Tucson, Ariz.-based American Smelting and Refining Company, or ASARCO, the former owner of Triumph Mine that recently filed for bankruptcy. ASARCO was required to cover 50 percent of the cleanup cost, with the other 50 percent coming from the Idaho Department of Lands, which had leased the land to the Triumph Mine Co. in 1922 and was therefore held liable. Initial reports put the total cost of cleanup at between $3.5 million and $5.9 million, though no one at the DEQ or the EPA could give an exact amount.
While the five-year review noted that most levels of arsenic and lead are significantly lower now, the site itself still raises the question: How clean—or safe -- is it? Or, in the big picture, can mine cleanup be successful, and is it worth the financial cost?
Murphy has his doubts.
"The history of mine remediation is that it always takes a lot longer and it is fraught with problems," he said. "You have problems within the problems as evidenced by the 13 years that they are still dealing with the issues.
After eight years of research and 13 years on remediation, Murphy said, it seems silly to him that the DEQ would allow a developer to proceed after only 30 days of public comment.
"I never thought I would be revisiting this issue," he said.