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Science Research Class at Walden School on our second collection trip.

Science Research Class at Walden School on our second collection trip.

After our fall semester, my research science class ended and the two sections of chemistry were consolidated down to one, with me teaching a computer technology course third period instead of chemistry. Without the two classes that could support the Tintic soil analysis project, I had to put the project on hold until I could get some more students involved. We also had an unusually cold January and February, with snow staying on the ground. This hampered our ability to collect samples. Between 3rd and 4th terms we hold a two-week Intersession at Walden School of Liberal Arts that allows us to teach specialty courses, and I dedicated my course entirely to finishing the Tintic project.

Altogether five students took the course, including Jeffery, Indi, Sean, Jem, and Aaron. To finish collecting all the samples, we had to take three additional trips down to the Eureka area. We were fortunate that the weather cooperated and warmed up enough that the snow melted.

Our second collection trip was on March 5 to the area of the Knight Smelter, the cyanide leeching pile, and Silver City. We stopped at the Bullion Beck Headframe on the way to take a group shot.

Ruins of the Knight Smelter built by Jessie Knight to process silver ore.

Ruins of the Knight Smelter built by Jessie Knight to process silver ore.

The Knight Smelter was built by silver tycoon Jesse Knight, who made his initial fortune with the Humbug Mine, then expanded along the Iron Blossom lode. Eventually, Uncle Jesse needed a smelter to concentrate and refine the ores from his mines, and he built it south of Eureka near the Union Pacific line. To connect his mines with the smelter and the Union Pacific main line, he built a narrow gauge railroad so that the smaller engines could make the turns and the steeper grades. A fairly level grade was built around the hills into his mines, and the road I walked on to the Iron Blossom #2 last fall followed this old grade. Jesse Knight contributed quite a bit of money to what was then the fledgling Brigham Young Academy, now Brigham Young University. The Jesse Knight Building, where I had several classes, is named after him.

Tank foundations and kiln at the Knight Smelter

Tank foundations and kiln at the Knight Smelter

The technology for refining ore went through rapid change in the 1920s. The smelter only operated for about four years, at which point it became cheaper to ship the ore by rail to the more modern smelters in Murray. The same thing happened with the Tintic Standard Mine and the reduction mill near Goshen.

There isn’t much left of the Knight Smelter except crumbling foundations for the solution tanks, a few archways where the kilns stood, and a pile of slag. Just to the south is the leeching pile. During the 1980s the price of gold jumped up when we went off the gold standard and the price was allowed to rise. Investing gurus such as Warren Buffet were advising people to invest in gold, and that drove up the price even more. Now, all these old tailings and waste rock piles that hadn’t been economical to process suddenly were. A layer of thick plastic was laid down and the waste rock crushed and piled onto the plastic, then a solution of cyanide was pumped over the pile. The cyanide would chelate with the gold and silver and trickle down through the pile into its lowest area, where it was pumped out and transported for smelting. This same process is being used at the Cripple Creek and Victor gold mine in Colorado.

Collecting a sample inside the kiln at Knight Smelter

Collecting a sample inside the kiln at Knight Smelter

We walked into the old smelter ruins and identified spots where there would likely be contamination, such as inside the kiln and underneath the tanks. We saw that a layer of sand was laid down under the tanks over the original soil, which is now covered with new soil deposited since the 1920s. We also collected samples from the top of the leeching pile. I picked up some samples of slag as well.

This smelter took the original ore and concentrated it by crushing and chemical action, using both physical and chemical separations. Mercury was used to bind to the silver (amalgamation). The amalgam was then heated up in a kiln to drive off the mercury and leave silver and gold. Since the silver started out in a compound with a higher oxidation state (+1) and was now a metal with an oxidation state of 0, this process is also called reduction. There were several reduction mills in the Tintic District. The leftover ore, after heating, still contained appreciable amounts of iron and lead, and was dumped onto a heap in a molten state. This waste material is called slag.

Slag at the Knight Smelter.

Slag at the Knight Smelter.

Sample under the tank foundations. Notice the layering of the soil; a layer of sand was laid down under the tanks when they were first built which is now covered with new topsoil.

Sample under the tank foundations. Notice the layering of the soil; a layer of sand was laid down under the tanks when they were first built which is now covered with new topsoil.

We moved on to the waste rock pile at Silver City where the Swansea Consolidated mine was located. Here, water runoff since the pile was created in the 1980s has washed small gullies fanning out south of the pile, crossing the road, and going on down the valley. The asphalt on the road is stained red with the iron sulfides. We collected on the pile itself, and used a portable pH meter to test the soil at locations on and near the pile. It was still too muddy to walk around much, and we were getting short on time, so we packed back up and drove back to Provo. We collected ten samples from five sites on this trip.

Testing the soil around the Swansea mine dump. The pH is very low, under 3.0.

Testing the soil around the Swansea mine dump. The pH is very low, under 3.0.

Sample at the Swansea Consolidated dump near Silver City

Sample at the Swansea Consolidated dump near Silver City

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Replacing topsoil Eureka Utah

Replacing topsoil in Eureka, Utah

On my visit to the area around Eureka, Utah last Friday, June 4, I not only wanted to visit Mammoth and Silver City, but to also document the efforts by the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up the town. I had traveled through Eureka a few days before on Memorial Day and noticed that the lawn and soil around the LDS chapel in Eureka was being dug up to a depth of about 18 inches. On Friday, crews were in the process of bringing in new soil in dump trucks and spreading it over a layer of black plastic where the lawns used to be. Normally I wouldn’t have noticed it much – just chalked it up to them putting in a new sprinkler system or something similar. But I knew differently. This was the latest site in an ongoing process to replace the topsoil throughout the entire town, which is a huge undertaking. All the old mine sites throughout the district have left a legacy of environmental contamination and pose a danger to careless explorers who try to enter mine shafts or tunnels or ruins.

Ore dump at Dividend

Ore dump at Dividend, Utah

When silver ore was discovered in the East Tintic Mountains by George Rush in 1869, it ignited a stampede of mining claims that spread throughout these mountains. New deposits were soon located and claimed, and the ore was assayed to be rich in silver, gold, lead, zinc, copper, and other minerals, usually in the form of metal sulfides. The most level sites near the mines quickly grew into the towns of Eureka, Mammoth, Silver City, Diamond, Knightsville, Dividend, etc. These towns were usually as close to the mines as possible so the miners didn’t have far to walk, so that miner’s houses and the mine buildings, hoists, smelters, railroad depots, and city businesses all competed for space in the narrow canyons. Tailings dumps of discarded minerals and slag from the smelters covered the hillsides around and above the town. Dust from these piles was blown by the frequent winds (this is western Utah, after all) and blanketed the whole town. Nobody thought much of it at the time. It was all just part of life in a mining town. But the entire topsoil was contaminated with lead and other metals down to about two feet under the surface.

Limestone rip-rap in Eureka

Limestone rip-rap covering a slope in Eureka, Utah

Downtown Eureka with limestone rocks

Clean-up operations near downtown Eureka, Utah

Today, the EPA has identified the area around Eureka as a SuperFund site, spending millions of federal dollars to clean up the contamination.  One by one, the yards of the residents and businesses are being dug up and the soil replaced, brought in from a staging area east of town. To prevent the tailings piles from blowing more toxic dust around the town, broken limestone rocks called rip-rap are being hauled in from a nearby quarry and are carefully placed to cover over the tailings piles to prevent further erosion by wind and water.

Mine dump in Tintic Mts.

Mine dump in East Tintic Mtns.

The work is progressing throughout Eureka, but the entire mining district has the same problem. Recent exploratory work has dug up the tailings piles in Silver City again, leaving the yellowish sulfides once again exposed to erosion. Many of the mine sites in the hills are owned by small-time private owners who keep the mines open on an occasional basis. They don’t have the resources to prevent the erosion of their tailings piles, and much of the East Tintic Mountains is contaminated just as Eureka itself is.

Old mine shaft

Abandoned mine shaft at Dividend, Utah

Another problem in the area is the many abandoned mine tunnels and shafts. Mines today are required to provide reclamation funds before the mine can even open, but it wasn’t an issue in the 1800s and early 1900s when most of these mines were active. The owners took the ore from the hills, then left all the scars, holes, pits, slag, tailings, and buildings behind when the ore ran out and their companies closed. Now these ruins are a hazard to casual explorers; every year or two someone dies falling down an abandoned mine shaft in Utah. The state has begun a program to close off these mines; to place grates or metal doors in the tunnels and shafts or to blast the entrances closed. Over 8000 mine sites have been closed off throughout the state through this program, but many, many more remain to be done.

Knight Smelter at Silver City

Ruins of the Knight Smelter at Silver City, Utah

Smelting or concentrating the ore brought its own environmental problems. Jesse Knight, the silver magnate that started Knightsville just southeast of Eureka, also built a smelter at Silver City in the early 1900s that operated for about eight years. The foundations of this smelter still remain, as do residual chemicals used to concentrate the ore, including mercury. When I visited the site on Friday, I found a man and his two young girls exploring the site. I suggested that he wash off his girls’ hands and shoes carefully once they were done because the whole site is contaminated with mercury (June McNulty, who runs the Tintic Mining Museum in Eureka, told me that he used to play with pools of liquid mercury metal that would seep into pockets around the smelter).

Knight Smelter

Remains of the Knight Smelter at Silver City, Utah

Right to the south of the old smelter lies a large heap of grayish tailings, now slowing growing a crown of weeds and grass. All the tailings left from the Knight mill were scooped up in the 1980s and placed on a pad with drainage pipes running through the pile, then a solution of cyanide was pumped and sprayed over the pile, leaching its way down through the tailings and chelating with the remaining gold and silver. The ore from these mines has been worked and reworked to get every last fraction of value out of it. But now the pile has been left just like all the other piles around, but with the addition of cyanide. I don’t know if steps have been taken to reclaim the pile, but I wouldn’t want to walk around on it.

Leaching pile at Silver City

Cyanide leaching pile at Silver City, Utah

The efforts to clean up these environmental messes is necessary, but it does come at a cost beyond just money. To clean up the town and make it safe to live in, its essential history and character has been changed.  The heavy equipment moving in limestone and soil has shaken apart a number of fragile historical structures, including buildings, homes, and headframes. Where there were colorful tailings piles slowly returning to nature, there are now carefully constructed fresh piles of gray limestone rocks, an ideal hideout and breeding ground for rattlesnakes (no joke here – I ran over one in my minivan as I was driving up the road to Mammoth). Eureka doesn’t look the same as it did ten years ago.

One can argue that Eureka must be dynamic and capable of changing. It’s not a museum but a living town, and change is part of life. But the historian in me hates to see history destroyed in the process. That is one of the main reasons I’ve started the Elements Unearthed Project and have traveled to Eureka several times in the last few years with my cameras and equipment; as the EPA clean up progresses, the town is changing and I want to preserve what can be preserved of the history before it’s gone forever.

Tailings piles at Silver City

Erosion of tailings piles at Silver City, Utah

The beryllium video second half is progressing well. I’ve decided to do the three episodes on the TIntic Mining Districts next instead of blown glass because It’s fresh on my mind and I now have all the footage and photos I’ll need. My goal is to get the beryllium video done and uploaded by the end of this week, then the Tintic videos by mid-July. Then I’ll start hitting the streets looking for financial sponsorship to continue this project.

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