Sludge can still be seen in the entrance to the Lead Queen Mine off of Harshaw Rd. Photo by Robert Gay

The Lead Queen Mine’s dramatic orange discharge and relative ease of access via Forest Road 4646 make it a highly visible poster child for acid mine drainage. It is even possible to see a long yellow stain – nicknamed “yellowboy” in the wash below the mine when looking at satellite imagery such as Google Earth. Both the orange discharge, and subsequent yellow flow, are deadly to the normal flora and fauna in a wash.

Six months following the PRT article of May 2018, titled “Toxic Sludge Present Once Again at Lead Queen Mine,” what is the most recent chapter in the saga of toxicity from the Lead Queen, last actively mined 112 years ago? Patagonia Area Resource Alliance (PARA) wrote to the U.S. Forest Service twice this fall (Oct. 25 and Nov. 7) requesting an explanation of their mitigation efforts and their plan for dealing with ongoing flows from the Lead Queen Mine. The second inquiry expressed more urgency, since toxic leakage continues in the Harshaw Creek watershed, which flows through ranches and private properties on its way to join the Sonoita Creek at Patagonia. This watershed is a major part of Patagonia’s Forest Service designated Municipal Watershed, and its upstream extent is shown by signage on Harshaw Road near Mowry and on the San Rafael Valley Road.

The most recent response (Nov. 20 2018) to PARA came from Edwin Monin, PE, engineering and Minerals Staff Officer for the Coronado National Forest. It states that the 2015-2016 measures (gabions in the wash & shoring at the entrance) are partially working, but also mentions that, “The Forest Service and the US Geological Survey currently continue to analyze scientific data collected from the area.…The Forest Service is presently going through the CERCLA response action process to develop a more permanent and sustainable remedy design in order to address the current site conditions at the Lead Queen Mine.”

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, CERCLA is an acronym for the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act. CERCLA “provides“ a Federal ‘Superfund’ to clean up uncontrolled or abandoned hazardous-waste sites as well as accidents, spills, and other emergency releases of pollutants and contaminants into the environment. Through CERCLA, EPA was given power to seek out those parties responsible for any release and assure their cooperation in the cleanup, the EPA website states. Nevertheless, the toxic flows from the Lead Queen continue, the concern remains, and the risks await effective response.

There are more than 120 abandoned mine sites in the Patagonia Mountains that could toxify water, whether on the surface or below. Beyond the dramatic iron and sulfur compounds of the Lead Queen, other contaminants in this multi-mineral fractured-rock mountain range could include lead, cadmium, arsenic, nickel, aluminum, copper and zinc, which are less colorful (or clear) in water, and thus much less obvious on the surface. In the complex chemistry of mine pollution, there can also be alkaline mine drainage, and one other surprise is that microbes can modify the chemical changes, since acid-adapted bacteria, for instance, can hasten certain reactions, making the drainage even more acidic. The Lead Queen may well be the tip of an iceberg of unknown size.