COTTAGE GROVE, Ore. (AP) — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed adding the abandoned Black Butte mercury mine south of Cottage Grove to its list of top-priority cleanup sites.
The agency says mine waste sends mercury, arsenic and other contaminants into the headwaters of the Willamette River's Coast Fork and into the Cottage Grove Reservoir.
Elevated mercury concentrations in reservoir fish have prompted fish consumption advisories since the 1970s. The Oregonian newspaper reported Friday that state and EPA officials determined the need to place the mine on the top-priority Superfund list became clearer after cleanup work two years ago uncovered more contamination than anticipated.
The mine operated from the late 1800s to the 1960s. Ken Marcy, the EPA's project manager for Black Butte, said the agency will look for former owners and other responsible parties to help cover cleanup costs, but the odds of finding them are low.
The land was purchased in 1994 by the Land and Timber Co. of Coos Bay.
If Black Butte makes it to the Superfund list, it would become the 13th active Superfund site in Oregon. The Formosa silver mine in Douglas County was listed in 2007.
Larry Tuttle, director of the Center for Environmental Equity and an Oregon mine cleanup activist, said adding the mine to the Superfund list is the best way to clean the site, but criticized state regulators for not more quickly grasping the severity of the problem.
"This is actually a fairly typical pattern for DEQ," he said. "They get into these sites and realize how complex and toxic they really are, then they throw up their hands, and EPA has to come in and rescue them."
If accepted, Black Butte would join the Superfund list in March, with the evaluation of cleanup options starting a few months later. It's too soon to say when a cleanup could be completed, Marcy said.
The mine is one of 10 sites nationwide that EPA proposed to add to the Superfund list this week.
(Copyright 2009 The Associated Press)