At a remote site in the mountains between Grey Rocks and Castle Crags, roughly 20 miles west of Castella, the Environmental Protection Agency, in partnership with the Forest Service, is currently conducting a major project to clean up the source of elevated mercury levels discovered in a 2000-2001 US Geological Survey of fish and amphibians in Trinity Lake and the Trinity River.
The source of the mercury has been traced to the abandoned Altoona Mine, a once major mercury producer that ceased operations in 1968. According to sources in the EPA and Forest Service, the Altoona Mine operated from at least 1895, and was at one time so bustling that it boasted a hotel, a Post Office, and was the site of the first electrical grid in Trinity County.
Work at the mine began with the brute labor of men and beasts, turned to machinery as industry developed and modernized over the years. The site benefited in its early stages from its proximity to gold mining activities in the area, and the vast cinnabar vein – mercury sulfide, mercury’s inorganic form – beneath the site began to be exploited and the mercury processed into its liquid metal form for its commercial value in the gold mining process. Later, the mine saw a spike in activity during World War II, when mercury was a ‘strategic mineral,’ necessary for the war effort.
What remains at the mine site is over a century of environmentally degrading mercury mining tailings – piles of roasted cinnabar calcines – toxic waste that has been leaching into the East Fork of the Trinity River via the stream the mine is situated along.
Last Wednesday morning, Michelle Rogow, the EPA Emergency Response Section’s  On-Site Coordinator at the Altoona Mine, offered a tour of the clean-up efforts.
After a 40 minute drive into the mountains starting at Castle Creek Road, this reporter was met by Rogow at the Crow Creek Bridge, between mile marker 15 and 16 on Forest Road 26. Rogow then led the way in her EPA vehicle another few miles along dusty logging roads to the secluded site of the Altoona Mine, where the heavy sounds of construction led to a view of ‘The Repository,’ a stunningly large, four-acre, 125 foot deep hole in the ground the EPA has dug to bury the mine’s toxic tailings in.
Rogow, a 17 year EPA veteran who has seen all manner of toxic sites in her region of service, is a tough, wry, no-nonsense leader of some of the best emergency response contractors in the West. Shielded from the glare of the morning sun by dark sunglasses, Rogow spoke of the mine, the work to clean it up, and the remoteness of the site where she and her team have been stationed in a camp of EPA trailers since early July.
‘Middle of nowhere’
“This is the middle of nowhere,” Rogow said as she led the way on foot along a steep mountain incline blanketed by pine trees. “We’ve had anywhere from 20 to 35 contractors working at the site. We work ten hours a day, six days a week. We live up here the whole time. On Sundays, some of the guys head down to Castella, to Mount Shasta… People who have lived here a long time know that we are here. People who grew up at the mine know we are here. We’ve had people show up to take a look at the work. They’ll say, ‘This building used to be here, that used to be there.’ It’s funny, for all the work we are doing, the only thing anyone really got upset about was an apple tree. We found a few apple trees up here, one was sitting right in the area that was contaminated. People didn’t want to see that go, they got upset about it.”
Standing on the rim of the Repository, Rogow surveyed the site of the mine and the clean-up efforts. Within the Repository itself were a number of heavy machines, looking like children’s toys for the way the vast hole surrounded and dwarfed them with its scale. Down the hillside, more machines tore into the red mine tailings, loading the toxic material into trucks.
Mining and mine waste
“The mine was underground,” Rogow explained, “they had their processing area over there. They took ore, raw rock, fed the crusher. Then it went to the rotary kiln, heated the ore, the mercury would volatilize. Then they would condense it. The process produced waste. The red stuff is mercury mine waste. The Repository has three liners on the bottom and three liners on the top. The goal is to take all the mercury mine waste and put it in this ‘cell.’ The first [liner] layer is clay, the second is HDPE (high-density polyethylene) – we call it ‘tank armor’ because it’s really thick. The last layer is a geo-synthetic fabric… [In the Repository] we are looking at putting 100,000 to 150,000 cubic yards [of waste].”
According to Rogow, the Altoona Mine clean-up effort is somewhat unique in EPA Emergency Response Section work because, “A lot of the time we don’t know the implications or the impact.” But because the elevated mercury levels in the Trinity River fish were tied to the Altoona Mine through the US Geological Survey study, the EPA had an idea of what it faced in the site.
After a few years of planning and coordinating with the Forest Service, which is responsible for part of the land the mine sits on, the EPA team under Rogow set up their camp of trailers and generators, brought in their equipment, and got to work. Rogow and many of her contractors have been living at the site since July 7.
History of the site
“There was nothing here of historical significance to save,” Rogow explained of what greeted the EPA team on their arrival at the site. “The buildings had collapsed, the wood [planking] was in shreds. All the mining equipment had been taken out… All the shafts, the adits (mining tunnels branching horizontally from a shaft) were all closed in, every one, either by man or by age.”
As she pointed to the collapsed main shaft, filled in by brush and debris, as well as to the planks of old mining buildings, Rogow revealed a fascination for the history of the site. “This was the first place with electricity in Trinity County… The mine dates to approximately 1892. They were looking for gold and they found mercury. This was all remote back then… I’ve read a ton of stuff. Altoona Mine was a huge producer of mercury. It was one of the largest mercury producers in all of California… When we got here, there were piles of mine waste in one area higher than the trees. There was mine waste all the way down to the stream. That was once called ‘Soda Gulch,’ but it was also known as the ‘Altoona Mine Drain.’ It has a direct discharge to the East Fork of the Trinity River. It’s been discharging to the Trinity River for well over 100 years.”
$5 to $6 million project
The EPA’s work at the site, Rogow explained, is a source-control ‘removal action.’ The equipment currently operating in the clean-up includes two water trucks for wetting down the toxic dust, two excavators for digging it up, five haul trucks, two front-end loaders, two bulldozers, one compactor, and numerous other vehicles. The estimated five to six million dollar project requires Rogow and her team to do daily cost runs, and the project includes biologists to let the team know when they have removed the toxic tailings down to the non-toxic native soil.
Among her previous experience with the EPA’s Emergency Response Section, Rogow coordinated hazardous material clean-up in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in which she oversaw at least ‘a hundred’ workers. Still, the Altoona Mine site has had its own challenges.
Rogow first came to the Altoona Mine in 2005, when she spearheaded the first assessment of the site that had ever been done, and she has been involved in every aspect of the project ever since, keeping an eye on everything from the large-scale budget, to the placement of hay bales in the streambed to catch silt and sediments as they run down from the work site in the EPA’s observation of BMP (Best Management Practices).
The mix of what she calls her ‘ologists’ – the biologists and geologists and the like – and the contractors working to clean up the mine, Rogow refers to with affection as, “My brains and my brawn.”
“Liquid mercury has been used for centuries,” Rogow explained as she spoke at about the mine’s reason for being. “They used to use the mercury to amalgamate the gold. Having this place here was great because of all the gold mining going on. This place was a ‘hot spot,’ no pun intended.”
As far as tracing the past owners of the mine to help pay for the cleanup costs, Rogow shook her head. “We call that ‘Responsible Party.’ There hasn’t been anyone found alive. Neither the owners nor any of the old operators.”
Maintaining morale
One of Rogow’s water truck drivers slowed his vehicle as he headed with water taken from Doe Creek to wet down the bed of the Repository. Asked if the remoteness of the site has been a psychological burden on him or the other workers, he smiled and said, “Not really. The food is great. I’m making a good paycheck, and it’s nice to see the mine cleaned-up.”
An important part of a remote, and long site operation such as the Altoona Mine clean-up is maintaining morale, Rogow explained. To this end, the EPA has contracted a full-time site cook, as well as two housekeepers who tend to the contractors’ quarters. “We try to feed [the workers] well. We try to maintain a really good attitude. Lots of the people are here because they like these jobs, like working on projects like this. The reason that they are here is because they are really good at what they do. We operate as a team. The lowest person to the highest person has a say in what we do. We have daily meetings. We have a number of satellite dishes, internet, chat, Skype. Some people drive down to cell phone range.”
As befitting a project involving the equipment the Altoona Mine clean-up does, the site also has professional security, and Rogow was clear that the public is not invited to pay the toxic waste clean-up operation a visit.  
“The cool thing about the projects we do,” Rogow said, “is that we take a situation and by the time we leave, it’s a hundred times better. We get to see it from beginning to end. We get to look at it and say, ‘How cool. Look at what we did.’ We leave the community better. We hope that over time the mercury levels in Trinity Lake and the Trinity River go down and that the mercury from the mine is stopped.”
Asked how long the clean-up will take, Rogow said, “Before the snow falls. We don’t really know when the end is. We don’t know how far the mercury leached into the soils. We could be fine, we won’t know until we get there.”
Toward the end of the tour, Rogow was met by the Forest Service’s Peter Van Susteren, Shasta Earth Science specialist, and Jeff Huhtala, Transportation Planner. Because of the scope of the mine clean-up, and the intricate property lines with part of the mine on private ‘patented’ land, and another part on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, the Forest Service has entered into a memoranda of understanding with the EPA in regards to the Altoona Mine, giving the EPA control of their budget for the operation.
Agreement with USFS
According to Van Susteren, who is also chairman of the board for the Mount Shasta Recreation and Parks District, “Part of this land is ‘patented’… the idea is from an 1872 mining law to get people out on the land. Because of the patent, almost all of the site is on private land with a small portion on public land. The Altoona Mine was very active, a major mercury mine. There were mines of similar scale in Marin County and the Sierras… The Forest Service entered an agreement with the US Geological Survey on the Trinity River and Trinity Lake. The finding was elevated methyl mercury levels, presumably out of these tailings, exceeding standards. This went on to the EPA… It was an emergency kind of scenario… [We are here because] the Forest Service has a responsibility to oversee impacts to our public lands. The EPA is doing a fine job, we don’t have any reservations at all.”
Huhtala, responsible for maintenance on some of the roads in and out of the area, added, “I haven’t been out here for awhile. It looks good. It looks like what [the EPA] said they were going to do.”
“I’ve done projects with joint agencies before,” Rogow said of the EPA’s joint effort at the Altoona Mine with the Forest Service. “Everyone has their strengths. The Forest Service has biologists, archeologists, they do over-flights. It’s great to have multiple agencies working toward a common goal.”
As Van Susteren produced Xeroxed photographs of the turn-of-the-century heyday of the Altoona Mine with mule trains packing food and supplies to the dozens of lean and bearded men standing on the porches of the mine’s boarding house, the modern equipment of the EPA and Forest Service project filled the mountain air with sounds that haven’t been heard at the mine in at least 40 years: machines at work.
Asked if old mine clean-up will continue to confront the EPA in our area, Rogow, eager to get back to her own work, nodded. “It has been, and it will be. It’s something we grapple with at on-going mines.”