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Cleaning Up Legacy Mines, One At A Time

Nov. 5, 2012 | Northwest Public Radio
Courtney Flatt


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  • An unamed stream runs through the Copper City mill site. The U.S. Forest Service is working to clean up the site, that is polluted with arsenic and lead. That is how contaminants make it into nearby waterways. credit: Courtney Flatt
  • The dilapidated bunk house is just a short walk from the Copper City mill. credit: Courtney Flatt
  • Buildings used to take up this mountain field in front of the Copper City bunk house. It is where the Forest Service originally wanted to bury the toxins from the mill, but that would have distroyed the historic site.
An unamed stream runs through the Copper City mill site. The U.S. Forest Service is working to clean up the site, that is polluted with arsenic and lead. That is how contaminants make it into nearby waterways. | credit: Courtney Flatt | rollover image for more

COPPER CITY, Wash. – The Pacific Northwest is scattered with thousands of abandoned mines. Even though most mines have been abandoned for 50 years, hard metals are still leaching out from some sites.

View Copper City in a larger map

Things like arsenic and lead.

The U.S. Forest Service is working to clean up these mines, one-by-one. Officials have devised a cleanup plan for a mill and prospect site 70 miles north of Yakima, Wash.

Around the turn of the century prospectors scoured the Cascades for gold. They hardly found any. Instead, they found lots of copper, which kept alive some prospectors dreams of making it rich.

The prospectors built Copper City in a mountain field below Miner’s Ridge, now a popular recreation area. About 800 tons of ore were shipped during Copper City’s heyday.

Today, a few ghostly traces remain. Forest Service archaeologist Jacqueline Beidl walked up an old jeep trail to reach the historic site.

“This is the old bunk house,” Beidl said pointing to a dilapidated wooden house.

She shifted her focus to a field in front of the caved-in building.

“You can see over there. All the excavations. The flat areas,” Beidl said. “Those were all structures, too.”

copper city mill
What’s left of the old mill. Credit: Courtney Flatt

Copper City’s mill is a short walk from the bunk house, where workers brought football-sized rocks here to process. Here, they’d grind up the ore and separate the copper. Then they’d dump the leftover rock.

Those bits of rock are now leaching hard metals like arsenic, lead, cadmium, and chromium.

Joe Gibbens heads up the Washington’s abandoned mine reclamation for the Forest Service. He climbed on the remains that stair-step down the hillside.

“So the material, you can just see this kind of loose gravely stuff,” Gibbens said as he bent down and picked up a handful of dime-sized rocks, letting them fall through his fingers.

“This is the material that winds up being high in arsenic,” Gibbens said.

The Environmental Protection Agency says arsenic in soil shouldn’t be more than 10 parts per million. You can imagine how tiny that is. One part per million would be about one ounce in 32 tons.

The highest arsenic level at the mill is nearly 100 times greater than EPA standards. The Forest Service will clean up most of the contaminants, but the area is naturally high in arsenic. That means levels will still be above EPA recommendations.

Gibbens said right now the contaminants could harm recreationalists. Though, he said, fewer people have traveled to Copper City in recent years because the road is closed.

“There’s a photograph taken 10 years ago. There’s probably 30 people climbing around. And you got kids. They’re getting dust. They’re inhaling it. They could conceivably consume it if they’re eating their meals,” Gibbens said.

Arsenic can also leach into nearby water bodies. That’s because miners diverted a small, unnamed stream to run the mill. It still meanders though the mill.

Beidl says that could harm endangered species.

“Deep Creek, which is a major drainage here, is a bull trout stream, which is an ESA-listed species. So it’s another reason to try to make sure we’re not contaminating the main stream,” she said.

Beidl said Miner’s Ridge is a popular nesting site for spotted owls, which are also listed under the Endangered Species Act. Prospectors dug 42 claims on the ridge above the mill. Beidl said the Forest Service will time the project so it does not disturb the owls.

The Forest Service’a plan to clean up the Copper City mill also includes the Granite Lake Prospect site nearby. Although Gibbens said that site is not as contaminated.

copper city mill, ore
Ore from the Copper City mill contains arsenic, lead, cadmium
and chromium.

Gibbens estimates this project will cost around $200,000 to clean up and is set to begin in 2014.

Originally the plan would have disturbed the historic area by enclosing the contaminants in the field near the bunker house. But Gibbens worked to preserve the remnants.

To do that, crews will bury the toxins in the mill’s footprint.

“Then put a liner on it and cap it right there,” Gibbens said. “And then some of the bigger structural features, we’ll set them aside at the beginning, and then we’ll put them back on. So if you come out here two years after the clean up is done, you’ll see something. It’ll look like it was a mill.”

The liner will be a geotextile fabric. It will separate the contaminated material from the clean material, Gibbens said.

“It’s like a real heavy garbage bag, a real heavy garbage bag,” Gibbens said.

Abandoned mines dot Pacific Northwest mountainsides. The EPA estimates mines pollute 40 percent of headwaters in the Western United States.

According to state and federal estimates, about 2,000 hardrock mines are in Washington. There are about 8,000 abandoned hardrock mines in Idaho. And another 6,000 in Oregon. The exact number of abandoned mines is difficult to track.

But it’s not just the abandoned mines that cause problems. John Robison, public lands director with the Idaho Conservation League, said large-scale modern mines cause problems, too. Robison said all the toxins add up.

“Basically there’s so much out there, you’re really looking at triage,” Robison said.

Bonnie Gestring is with Earthworks, a conservation group that works to reform mining policies and practices. She said current mines should pay a royalty fee, which would help spur abandoned mine cleanup programs.

“It would generate a very large amount of money that would significantly speed up the cleanup process,” Gestring said.

Many historic mines – including Copper City – have been abandoned for so long that owners are no longer around. That leaves taxpayers funding the cleanup efforts. Clean-up money then comes from a small chunk of the Forest Service budget.

Gibbens said that’s why the process can take years.

“So some of these that’s why it might be years and years as we go through the steps,” Gibbens said, “because we don’t have any money to go to the next step.”

© 2012 Northwest Public Radio
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