Originally created 01/26/97

Mountain still yields treasure

LINCOLNTON, Ga. - Strolling a battered landscape that glows pink and red with the afternoon sun, John Adcock can name the rare minerals that abound in the rubble that was once Graves Mountain.

"You can go in any mineral museum, anywhere in the world, and the rutile specimen will be from right here," the Milledgeville engineer said, displaying a piece of the rare titanium dioxide crystal.

Rockhounds, students - even Boy Scouts - are making increasingly frequent pilgrimages to the surreal geologic anomaly that juts 500 feet skyward from an otherwise smooth terrain. Like gold seekers who flock to north Georgia each spring, they come with high hopes of finding choice minerals and crystals.

"We've had 1,000, sometimes as many as 2,000 people through here in a year," said Ray Dotson, an environmental consultant for the mountain's owner, Connecticut-based Combustion Engineering Inc.

The company mined the mountain in the '60s and '70s for the rare mineral kyanite, used in spacecraft because of its heat-resistant qualities. The mine closed in 1984 when a new kyanite supply was found elsewhere.

Since then, as reclamation efforts were launched to neutralize the acidic runoff and waste piles the mining left behind, the center of the mountain - "the Pit" - continues to yield rare minerals on a smaller scale.

In addition to kyanite, there is neon-blue lazulite, found in crystalline nuggets washed from gravel beds. Nearby boulders erupt with radiant white crystals, known as pyrophyllite.

Among the most popular with collectors are the iridescent hematite and flattened chunks of iron pyrite - or "fool's gold" - that glows like the real thing, Mr. Adcock said.

The rim of the canyon - almost 500 feet above the forest floor - is a place where buzzards roost, littering boulders with waste that blends easily into the mix of minerals and rusting ore.

"Sometimes you can come up here in the afternoon, and every one of these rocks will have a big buzzard sitting there," Mr. Dotson said. "They'll just look at you."

Graves Mountain was once owned by George Kuntz, the famous gemologist for the New York-based jeweler Tiffany's. In the 1800s and early 1900s, it was a picnic spot because of its mountain overlook view.

Today, as an appeals court mulls a $15 million property damage award to nearby residents who sued the company over acidic runoff, Mr. Dotson is supervising a $4 million reclamation project.

"The area will probably never again be mined commercially," he said. "But we've done quite a bit toward reclaiming the land."

In efforts to reclaim the polluted rubble piles, consultants added layers of lime, hay, fertilizer and compost before topseeding the area with a mixture of plants and grains.

Other programs include artificial "bogs," where acidic runoff is filtered through lagoons planted with aquatic plants. Workers have even spread tons of lime through undisturbed forests to change the acidity of the groundwater.

"Over the last two or three years, we've substantially completed reclamation of the areas identified as being the worst," said John Brett, Combustion Engineering's vice president.

However, the company's role in monitoring the area and continuing efforts to reclaim the rubble piles likely will be active several more years, he said.

Someday, the company may sell or donate the site to a university for use as a learning laboratory.

"But as long as we have to be involved with active maintenance of the water-treatment systems, we don't see that we'd be in a position to sell the property or donate it," he said.

In the meantime, rockhounds and others likely will continue to pound apart the boulders with their steel picks, hoping for the perfectly formed rutile or other rare specimen.

The mine is private and patrolled. Visitors must make prior arrangements with the site's security officer, Junior Norman, and must sign a hold-harmless agreement before entering the property.


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