AMERICAN FORK CANYON — Mother Nature and the last five years of drought have helped Utah taxpayers, according to the on-site coordinator of a project to clean up dangerous waste left over from gold and silver mines in the American Fork Canyon.
Dry summers made the work easier and cheaper because it kept the refuse lighter and easier to move. At the Pacific Mine, Mother Nature provided a natural clay buffer that held back 6,000 yards of toxic material. Without the buffer, the waste would have leached into the groundwater. Instead workers dug out far less wet toxic material than expected.
No water was found under the repository area at the Dutchman Flats site, where workers found 10,000 unexpected yards of material. That overrun of waste matched the under-run at Pacific Mine.
As a result, a cleanup project expected to cost at least $1.25 million came in at $800,000 and is finishing ahead of schedule.
"All in all, it was easier than we thought," project coordinator Ted Fitzgerald said. "We expected more water and more wet tailings. For us, the dry summers were really to our benefit.
"We expect to be done by deer season, by mid-October. I can say that because I'm going hunting," he quipped. "There's still a lot of waste material in the canyon on Miller Hill and in MaryEllen Gulch, but we should not exceed water standards after this. That was really the driving force behind this project."
Fitzgerald said the tailings — a phrase derived from waste left at the tail-end of a project — were leaching lead, zinc and cadmium into streams around several old mines and smelters in the canyon, including the Wild Dutchman Mine, the Pacific Mine, the Yankee Mine, the Globe Mine and the Bog Mines in the canyon's North Fork.
Lead levels alone were as much as 10 times the acceptable amount.
Under Fitzgerald's direction, Granite Construction excavated the sites, stockpiled dirt and moved 50,000 cubic yards of tailing material to a repository at the Dutchman Flats area. The repository was covered with a four-layer polyethylene liner.
Once the liner is in place, earth and topsoil will cover the mound, which will be fenced off and monitored in perpetuity.
Keeping all the waste in one place saves taxpayers a huge amount of money, Fitzgerald said.
As it was, construction equipment traveling to and from the mine sites had to travel carefully on bumpy, narrow roads that often didn't allow for two-way traffic.
"When we brought the loader across one section, we had one tread hanging off the outside edge," Fitzgerald said. "It was interesting."
Granite foreman Kenny Lamb said he's been surprised at how well the work has gone.
"If we'd had water here, it'd been a nasty bugger," he said.
At the Pacific Mine site, Granite has created a series of ponds that will help clean the wastewater that is still seeping from the mine. They'll also re-spread the dirt and create a place for the natural vegetation to come in, making it more aesthetically pleasing.
"We still have a lot of contamination," Fitzgerald said. "There's a lot of material on private property." Landowners were given the opportunity to be included in the forest service project but most declined because of the cost.
"We got special permission to include private landowners because it's really not in the best interest of the public to have toxic materials from private lands leaching onto public lands," Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald said he doesn't blame the early miners who dug gold and silver out of the mountain 100 years ago and left the tailings behind.
"These people were only doing what was state-of-the-art at the time. They just didn't realize what they were doing. We didn't even worry about this kind of thing until 1988. Then it took us 16 years to get this going."