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Oregon Trails: Nuclear Age

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NEAR LAKEVIEW, Ore. — For more than 160 years, talk about mining in Southern Oregon is usually about gold, but 60 years ago, prospectors in Lake County hit pay dirt with a mineral of another kind that helped launch the world into the nuclear age.

From the time the first atomic bomb announced the beginning of the nuclear age, the atom has been a center of controversy, both for its potential for harm or for good. Regardless, the demand for the raw material to power the world’s reactors and build its bombs exploded, so to speak, in the early-1950s…and its impact was felt in Oregon.

About 15 miles northwest of Lakeview, Oregon’s two largest uranium mines were developed in the mid-50s. The first commercial uranium mines in Oregon were located here by Don Tracey and John Roush of Lakeview. Named the white king mine, its discovery was kept secret for about four months. But once the word was out, hundreds of prospectors scoured the area with Geiger counters, hoping to strike it big.

“Exploratory geologists tend to be mavericks out, out by themselves,” explained Gary Lynch, the DOGAMI Assistant Director. “And driving around in a white pickup truck looking for the needles in the haystack.”

But here they found that needle – two of them, in fact. Soon, another ore deposit less than a mile away was also found. It was named the “Lucky Lass”, near Augur and Thomas Creeks. The Lakeview Mining Company was formed and a uranium processing mill was built here in Lakeview in 1958, at a cost of more than three and a half million dollars.

It was a boom time for uranium mine owners, spurred by record weapons production during the peak of the Cold War. In 1956, the atomic energy commission reported it had spent $254 million on nuclear materials the year before, mostly on uranium. There was another billion dollars’ worth stockpiled. But the boom didn’t last long, and by the mid-60′s the White King and Lucky Lass, and the Lakeview mill shut down, never to re-open.

By the mid-90′s the U.S Environmental Protection Agency declared the White King and Lucky Lass mine sites to be superfund cleanup sites. Some ten years later cleanup began at both sites. The White King Pond, which is in the former open pit mine, is fed by springs and contains about 80 million gallons of icy blue water over 13 acres.

“Back in the early 50′s there was no mine regulation,” Gary said. “Those sites were all grand-fathered from being buttoned up and put away properly, because there weren’t any rules and regulations about what to do with it. So they just shut down on their own for lack of profitability.”

When these mines were abandoned, nature took over and created what became a toxic site that required superfund cleaning in order to neutralize the harmful elements that are in the ground. Mine tailings at both sites were sealed and covered about five years ago to prevent contaminants leaching into area water supplies.

Some 15 tons of lime was placed in the pond to help neutralize acidic water that collected there over the last 50 years. And today, Augur Creek flows by through a quiet meadow, while Oregon’s connection to the nuclear age sits quietly nearby.

Interest has also surfaced recently regarding a possible uranium mine east of Lakeview in Malheur County, near the Nevada border. An Australian company is seeking permission to open what is called the 450 acre “Aurora” property, to mine at least 18-million pounds of uranium oxide, near McDermott.