The beginning stages of an environmental cleanup of the Orphan Mine site on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon will begin later this year, the National Park Service announced recently.
The Orphan Mine site is visible on the South Rim, with the best view probably from Maricopa Point. Here, the mine’s hoisting shaft can be seen behind a chain-link fence.
Grand Canyon National Park’s chief of maintenance John Beshears said an engineering evaluation and cost analysis will be conducted for the upper mine area this year. The process will analyze both the necessity for cleanup action and the effectiveness, feasibility and cost of a number of cleanup alternatives.
"Community involvement is the next step," Beshears said. "When we start into one of these actions and cleanup strategies, we need to talk to the community to see what their concerns are ... we’ll start with interviews of those involved and then move on."
The upcoming analysis will combine what is already known about the mine site and with other research yet to be done "to fill those holes so we understand everything about the site, if there’s any danger to human health or the environment," Beshears said.
NPS officials hope to go through the process together with the original mine owners and operators, partnering with them to develop a strategy and share the costs of cleaning it up.
"That happens sometimes, sometimes it doesn’t and the government cleans it up and spends time in court recovering costs," Beshears said.
The process has been delayed by a lack of appropriated funds to the NPS. Beshears said he hopes "that happens real soon."
The Orphan Mine site has been the subject of controversy over the years because of its location and possible threats to human health. Beshears said he thinks the upcoming process will help people learn a lot about the mine and to dispel rumors that have been going around.
"The EE/CA will investigate all of those concerns people have and we’ll determine if there are any problems out there," Beshears said.
The mine is located on the rim off Hermit Road between Maricopa Point and Powell Point. The Rim Trail detours around the site.
The mine site dates back to 1893 when prospector Daniel Hogan filed a claim after discovering a vein of copper about 1,100 feet below the rim. The site was patented in 1906, more than a decade before the formation of the National Park Service.
In those early decades of the mine’s existence, periodic mining operations were conducted for copper and other precious metals. In 1951, geologists determined there were high-grade uranium deposits present.
Two years later, the Golden Crown Mining Co., began leasing the mineral rights to the property and in 1956, the company purchased both the mineral rights and surface rights. Golden Crown built several structures to support its activities, including a three-tower aerial tram system for hauling ore from the lower mine area to the rim.
In 1959, Golden Crown replaced the tram with a hoisting shaft to increase production. The hoist included an 80-foot high steel headframe, which can still be seen today, and a crosscut from the shaft to the main ore deposit at a depth of about 1,500 feet below the rim.
"About one-third of the claim, maybe less, a quarter of it is on the South Rim," Beshears said. "The rest traverses down the side of the Canyon to about 1,000 to 1,200 feet below the rim."
In 1962, Congress authorized the interior secretary to accept a title to the site. Mining activities were required by the 1962 legislation to terminate no later than 1987. Mine production ceased in 1969.
After the federal government took possession in 1987, the mine was shut down and the area fenced off.
"We assumed the title in 1987 and since that time there have been different analyses of the site," Beshears said. "Right now we know there are mine wastes at the mine, upper and lower."
A chain link fence and a temporary orange outer fence were installed to protect park visitors from any potential exposure to radiation or other mine waste contaminants. In addition, signs were posted in the Horn Creek drainage to warn the public not to drink the water there because of potentially hazardous levels of radioisotopes.
Beshears said the outer fence, which disrupts the Rim Trail, has been a constant headache because it’s always falling down. He said the NPS is currently doing compliance for a three-wire fence to define the area better.
"We’re trying to keep people away until we do a full analysis and know what we’ll do," Beshears said. "The three-wire fence will continue to disrupt the Rim Trail until this EE/CA is done. When that’s complete, we’ll know if there are any threats and if there are, to what extent and the cleanup alternatives."
The NPS determined that the site may be eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, which creates another issue to confront.
"When we know the full story in terms of contamination, that’s when we’ll know what to do," Beshears said. "We’re not close to knowing what will happen until we know all the specifics."
Beshears said the public can access the initial administrative record file, which contains documents upon which the selection of the site cleanup action will be based. The file can be reviewed locally at the park’s museum collection (call 638-7769 to schedule access) or in Boulder, Colo., at NPS offices.
For information, contact Beshears at 638-7730 or Shawn Mulligan at 303-415-9014.