Crews have been moving about 4,000 to 5,000 cubic yards of dirt each day into a former uranium mine located in the Stanislaus National Forest, according to project managers.
Project Manager Tyson Appel looks over the pit at the former Juniper Mine as crews fill it in. /Amy Alonzo Rozak, The Union Democrat
A $1.5 million multi-season project to clean up the toxic remnants of the Juniper Uranium Mine is expected to wrap up later this year.
Forest Service spokesman Jerry Snyder said work on the first phase this summer is going as planned.
“Last year was tough and we were late to get equipment out because we were fighting with the snow,” he said. “This year there was less snow on the ground and we were able to get out much earlier.”
Dump trucks have been traveling back and forth on Eagle Meadow Road since late June carrying loads of materials to the mine site from a stockpile of materials about 10 miles away off Highway 108.
Piles of contaminated rock and earth extracted from the site when the mine was active were left around the area. The Forest Service project intends to fill the mine back in with the materials and cover it with a thick layer of clean soil.
So far, the entire contents of the first waste pile have all been reintroduced to the mine and crews are hard at work on the second.
The third pile, which is mostly the cleanest soils from the area, will be placed over a plastic liner that will cover the contaminated rock. That soil is currently being sifted to remove rock debris that could damage the plastic liner.
After those stages are complete, Forest Service personnel will re-vegetate the area using seeds gathered over the years from plants that are native to the area. Drainage ditches and erosion controls will also be constructed.
“It restores the area to its natural contour and consistency and also removes the threat of eroding waste piles,” Snyder said of the project. “That erosion was what was responsible for the increased readings that should have been deep within in the hillside.”
The 1,500-by-1,000-foot pit was left open following a dozen years of uranium exploration. The area hosted campers for years until 2003, when higher-than-recommended radiation levels were detected.
The Juniper Uranium Mine produced about 500 tons of uranium ore to be used for nuclear power and weapons between 1956 and 1968. Earth that was contaminated after coming in contact with uranium ore remained exposed at the mine site.
Forest Service officials have said they’re not clear on what outfit operated the mine because rights to extract the materials had changed hands. Less than $200,000 for previous cleanup work at the mine had been recovered as part of larger case settlement that included multiple sites.
A federal superfund designated for cleanup of the country’s most toxic sites is the project’s primary source of funding.
Work that was conducted last from August to November included constructing an underground drainage system to direct spring water to a sediment catch basin and returning a portion of the exposed earth back into the pit.
Snyder said Forest Service personnel will monitor the basin and remove any contaminated sediment or water and dispose of it at a safe location.
He said Forest Service employees last year discovered that water moving downstream was “relatively clean” and wasn’t capturing much sediment eroding off the waste piles at the mine site.
Although contaminated earth remained exposed at the mine site, it is too far from main roads to pose a threat to area residents, according to the Forest Service.
Snyder said there is a Geiger counter station at the site to check for high radiation levels in soils on workers clothes and shoes, but so far none has been found.