As Pete Jones climbed the steep trail carved out by miners more than a century ago, he paused to look down from near the top of the roughly 5,000-foot peak.
"You can see the life and death line right there," the geologist observed of the rugged path to the long-abandoned Blue Ledge copper mine in the southern tip of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.
The trail serves as a demarcation separating the green vegetation from the barren, orange tailings on the edge of the mountain's north face.
"With all the copper and the zinc left over in the mining tailings, it's death to any vegetation," Jones said.
"After 110 years, there is still no life down there."
An $11.1 million cleanup effort is under way to restore life on the mountainside and in the immediate drainage left sterile by the mining tailings laced with a heavy-metal mix of arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead, sulfuric acid and zinc.
Roughly 1,000 vertical feet below, huge Volvo dump trucks grumbled under their 60,000-pound loads of dirt while a rumbling D-6 bulldozer carved a huge bowl out of the earth which will serve as a repository for the toxic tailings.
A Spider excavator, resembling a monstrous mechanical yellow arachnid, slowly crawled its way up a steep scar of tailings stretching some 500 feet down on the mountain's southwest side.
Named for the characteristic blue sheen of weathered chalcopyrite discovered by prospectors in 1898, the mine is about three miles south of the California state line high in the Joe Creek drainage of the Siskiyou Mountains Ranger District.
The peak is on a spur ridge angling north off Copper Butte. It is some 33 miles south of Jacksonville in the upper Applegate River watershed, upstream from the Applegate Dam.
"Right up Joe Creek from this site we've found Pacific salamanders, frogs — every kind of bug and critter you can imagine should be in a mountain stream," Jones said. "But down below us is a nuked site. It's all orange and sterile.
"My hope is once we control the source of acid by removing the waste rock that is causing it, that all the stuff that would ordinarily live in the ecosystem will come back," he added.
Jones, 53, is a former forest geologist now in charge of cleaning up abandoned mines for the Forest Service throughout Oregon and in far Northern California.
Because the nearly 700-acre mine is patented, making it private property, the Forest Service is working with the Environmental Protection Agency, which has jurisdiction on private land when it comes to environmental pollution. The Forest Service's concern is the environmental impact on the adjacent public forestland and the watershed.
The repository will be large enough to hold the 48,000 cubic yards of hazardous material expected to be removed from the mine, whose most productive days were during World War I, Jones said.
"Volume-wise, it's really not that much," he said. "It's just the complexity and the access and removal and reclamation and site-working characteristics that make it expensive and difficult."
He won't get an argument from Brian Wetzsteon, 48, regional construction manager for Engineering/Remediation Resources Group Inc., the Martinez, Calif., firm contracted by Uncle Sam to do the work.
"Environmentally, it's not that hazardous of a project," Wetzsteon said of the earth-moving work, which began early this month. "Cleaning up mine sites like this is really common. The challenge here is the terrain and logistics."
The highest point on the mine is nearly 1,000 vertical feet higher than the lower portion.
"You've got the steep ground, big trucks going up and down narrow roads and the concern about (wild)fires," observed Tom McGinty, 58, an engineer and project superintendent for Granite Construction Inc. of Sacramento, which has been subcontracted for the bulk of the earth moving.
"But getting the mining dirt off that steep ground on the mountain is going to be the challenging part," he said.
Taking on that challenge is Brian Pombo, operator of the Spider excavator. Pombo, 36, of Breckenridge, Colo., is the owner of All Mountain Construction, a firm specializing in working on extreme slopes.
"This slope is steep but the challenge is the tailings are spread so far," he said during a lunch break. "It's a real technical ascent going up."
Powered by a nearly 150-horsepower engine, the 23,000-pound Spider has extendable steel pads, adjustable wheels and a back hoe for gathering the tailings. The environmentally friendly machine employs biodegradable hydraulic fluid and grease along with biodiesel.
"We'll go clear to the top, then pull the tailings down to where they handle them with bigger equipment as we come back down," said Pombo, who first began manning the mountain-climbing machines in the late 1990s. Hand laborers will clean up tailings he can't reach with the machine.
For safety's sake, the Forest Service requires a stout cable be attached to the Spider to anchor it to the mountain. The slope is 76 percent where Pombo is now working, Jones said.
The goal is to remove all the waste rock before the snow flies this year, place it in the repository and cap it, Wetzsteon said. However, it will take about two years to replant the site, he added, noting the plants must be native to the region.
The firm will have about 30 people working at any one time throughout the project's life, he said, including 10 local residents now in training to begin waste-rock removal this coming week.
A tiny trailer town has popped up at the bottom of the mine, complete with a satellite dish for communications. The lion's share of food, tools and other materials needed throughout the project will be purchased locally, he said.
Project administrator Jones, who has worked on mining projects in the private sector, began studying the Blue Ledge hazardous waste problem for the Forest Service 15 years ago.
"When we did the watershed analysis in '95, we found records from '91 in which the hydrologist had done a water sample of both the Blue Ledge outlet and Joe Creek which showed the excessive metals and high acid content — sulfuric acid essentially," he said. "That was our cue that this was a point source of pollution that was impacting the watershed."
While ascending the mountain, climbers smell the pungent odor of sulfur wafting up from the tailings. The tailings are from the estimated 12,000 feet of adits and shafts miners dug into the mountain early in the 20th century, Jones said.
"Think of an ant farm you had as a kid — it looks like that," he noted after climbing to the top of the mine just below the peak.
Overlooking the north face are remnants of a wooden structure once used to harness a cable system that hauled equipment and supplies up the mountain and ore back down. Railroad ties in the main production adit are what is left of a rail system that delivered ore in carts to the loading platform.
"Whatever wasn't good ore got dumped over the edge," Jones said. "And that's the legacy we are cleaning up now."
But the historic aspects of the mine will be preserved, including what is left of the old loading platform and cable system, said Jones, noting he has a lot of respect for those who labored in the mine.
"Working on the edge of that with the 75- to 100-foot vertical, somebody must have gotten hurt back in the day," he said.
Just inside the main tunnel is a vein of the blue ore that gave the historic mine its name. The folds in the rock were created eons ago when the Earth was young, he said.
"Part of the fascination as a geologist is being able to see stuff that was once part of a sea floor that is now nearly a mile high," Jones said. "This used to be a submarine hot springs. Add 220 million years, squeeze everything up from the ocean floor and bring it up 6,000 feet or so and you get this."
Farther inside are thick timbers built inside the main tunnel, standing as sentinels guarding the past.
Heavy metal grates will be installed at each adit in the mine to prevent unauthorized human access but still allow bats and other small night creatures to use the site as a home, Jones said.
"It's very hazardous in there," he said, noting there are mine gases and falling rocks.
There are also winzes, vertical shafts only partially covered by rotting timbers.
To demonstrate the danger, Jones tossed a rock into a winze located some 30 feet from the entrance. The rock bounced off rock walls, then splashed into a pool nearly 10 seconds later.
"Some of these winzes drop down hundreds of feet into pools of acid water," he said. "You don't want to fall into one of them."
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.