Cleaning Up Legacy Mines, One at a Time

Nov 5, 2012

The Pacific Northwest is scattered with thousands of abandoned mines. Most have been abandoned for more than 50 years. But hard metals are still leaching out from some sites. Things like arsenic and lead. The U.S. Forest Service is working to clean up these mines. One-by-one. Reporting for EarthFix, Courtney Flatt visited one of Washington’s abandoned mining cities.

Around the turn of the century prospectors scoured the Cascades for gold. The hardly found any. Instead, they found lots of copper.

Some prospectors still dreamed of making it rich.

So, they built Copper City in a mountain field north of Yakima, Wash. About 800 tons of ore were shipped during its heyday.

Now, a few ghostly traces remain.

Beidl: “This is the old bunk house.”

Forest Service archaeologist Jacqueline Beidl leads me up an old jeep trail. She points to a field in front of the dilapidated building.

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

We take a short walk to see what’s left of Copper City’s mill.

Workers brought football-sized rocks here to process. 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 climbs on the remains that stair-step down the hillside.

Gibbens: “So the material, you can just see this kind of loose gravely stuff.”

He bends down, picks up a handful of dime-sized rocks, and lets them fall through his fingers.

Reporter: “And so it’s these rocks, here, that you’ll be cleaning up?”

Gibbens: “Yeah, this is the material that winds up being high in arsenic. So they would bring it down in big pieces and make little pieces out of it.”

The Environmental Protection Agency says arsenic in soil shouldn’t be more than 10 parts per million. You can imagine how tiny that is. That’s about one ounce in 3 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 says right now the contaminants could make recreationalists sick. Fewer people have traveled to Copper City in recent years because the road is closed.

Gibbens: “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.”

Long ago, miners diverted a small stream to run the Copper City mill. That means, now, arsenic can also leach into nearby water bodies. Beidl says that could affect endangered species.

Beidl: “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.”

Beidl says spotted owls nest on Miner’s Ridge. That’s where prospectors dug 42 claims above the mill. Spotted owls are also listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Gibbens says the Forest Service cleanup project will cost around $200,000. It’s set to begin in 2014.

Crews will bury the toxins in the mill’s footprint. That will keep the historic remains intact.

Gibbens: “Then put a liner on it and cap it right there. 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.”

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

The exact number of abandoned mines is difficult to track. John Robison is with the Idaho Conservation League.

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

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.

Bonnie Gestring is with Earthworks. That’s a conservation group that works to reform mining policies and practices.

Gestring says current mines should pay a royalty fee. That would help spur abandoned mine cleanup programs.

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

Many historic mines – including Copper City – have been abandoned for so long that owners are no longer around.

That means, for this project, clean-up money come from a small chunk of the Forest Service budget.

As he drives down a gravel road, Gibbens says that’s why the process isn’t fast.

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

And there’s always another abandoned mine on Gibbens’ list.

Copyright 2012 Northwest Public Radio