Forest Service outlines plan to clean up toxic mine site

Published: Apr. 28, 2015 at 6:55 PM MST|Updated: Mar. 2, 2018 at 4:23 PM MST
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TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - The Coronado National Forest, Sierra Vista Ranger District held a community meeting Tuesday to answer questions about clean up of a contaminated mine site and to update residents about a future drilling project set to take place in the area.

Last October, Tucson News Now first showed you dramatic pictures of bright orange soil and water flowing in the Patagonia mountains, after we were alerted by environmental groups in the area. Since the discovery, the soil and water have been tested.

Test results showed extremely high levels of concentrations of lead and arsenic in water, soil and waste rock samples at the Lead Queen site. High concentrations of zinc, copper and aluminum were also found. All of these heavy metals are listed as “hazardous

substances” and can cause serious, or even deadly, health issues. The red-orange color of the sludge was due to extreme concentrations of iron, according to tests conducted by the forest service and the United States Geologic Survey.

Documents released by USGS stated the clean up aims to reduce potential exposure of the hazardous heavy metals to “human populations, animals or the food chain.”

“This is a good start, but I've seen many more abandoned mines in the Patagonia Mountains that also need to be cleaned up. The mining industry has a well-earned reputation for just walking away from mines when they're done.” Gooch Goodwin, native Patagonian

and PARA board member.

The Southwestern Regional Office of the U.S. Forest Service issued an action memo for “time critical” clean-up of the abandoned Lead Queen Mine in the Patagonia Mountains on the Coronado National Forest, approximately six miles south of the town of Patagonia,


Members of the Patagonia Area Resource Alliance discovered the abandoned mine overflowing with toxic, orange sludge into a tributary of Harshaw Creek in September 2014. PARA members documented the spill and notified authorities.

The Harshaw Creek tributary eventually flows into the town of Patagonia, Sonoita Creek and Patagonia Lake.

As the land owners of the Lead Queen Mine, the Forest Service was issued two Notice of Violations from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality: “Addition of a pollutant to navigable waters from a point source without a permit,” and “Discharge of storm

water associated with an industrial activity without a permit.”

The Forest Service document also acknowledges that the “Patagonia Mountains have high levels of biodiversity and are home to a variety of species protected under the Endangered Species Act including jaguar, ocelot, lesser long-nosed bat, Mexican spotted owl,

western Yellow-Billed Cuckoo, Sonora Tiger Salamander, and the Northern Mexican Gartersnake.”

It additionally states, “the area is best-known and most popular places for birding in the U.S. Bird enthusiast who come from all over the world to catch a glimpse of more than 300 species of birds, including many Neotropical species that migrate, nest, and live in this unique habitat.”

Clean up of the five acre site is expected to start Spring 2015 and be completed before the coming monsoon season to avoid erosion and flushing of heavy metals further downstream.

Carolyn Shafer, a board member of PARA said while this clean up came as good news, this was just the tip of the iceberg. There were about 130 abandoned mines in the Patagonia Mountains, with five mining companies now vying to excavate in the mineral-rich area.

“The biological assets of our community are far more valuable than the mineral resources in the ground. Mining has to come back and stop externalizing costs to you and me as taxpayers, here are these old mining companies that left tremendous damage. Now we

know from this one site alone, extensive unacceptable level of things that poison our population and our people, and mining companies just walk away, said Shafer.

In a hand out given to residents on Tuesday night, forest service officials described the project area and their plan.

The hand-out stated that the 5-acre site was located about 6-miles south of the town of Patagonia.  Access roads to the area were limited, and could only be accessed by a 4x4 or high clearance vehicle.

The contaminated Lead Queen Mine was owned at times, or in part, by the Jefferson Mining company.  It was discovered in 1897 and ceased operations in 1902.  In 1910 the property was developed by the T.E. Munn Mining Co. of San Antonio, Texas and featured adits,

shafts, drifts, crosscuts, and stopes on two levels.

The clean up plan included removing sediment from the area, building structures called "gabions" to block remaining sediment from traveling downstream, and blocking adits and shafts with Polyurethane Foam to prevent sediment from leaving the area.

Forest service officials said they were in the process of bidding out the project to contractors, and did not have an estimated cost for us at this time.

As soon as the contractor was hired, forest service officials said they would give them about 120 days to complete the clean up project.  Plans included monitoring the site regularly for years.

Residents also got updates from Wildcat Silver and Regal Resources, Inc.   The two companies were currently conducting exploratory drilling in the area to mine for Silver, Manganese, and Copper.

Wendy Russell with PARA expressed concern about future mining activity in the area, saying she was concerned about the effect this would have on the town of Patagonia's drinking water, as the area was already littered with contaminated mines.

The Sunnyside Exploration Project for copper was expected to start exploratory drilling in the area in October.

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