Feature

Massive mine clean-up restores landscape; contributes millions to local economy

Holly Krake
Pacific Northwest Region
September 13th, 2017 at 3:30PM

Chelan District Ranger, Kari Grover Wier, reviews progress at the reclamation site with Rio Tinto Project Engineer, Amber Carver, on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest near Holden Village, WA in August, 2016. (Credit: USFS/ Holly Krake.)
Chelan District Ranger, Kari Grover Wier, reviews progress at the reclamation site with Rio Tinto Project Engineer, Amber Carver, on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest near Holden Village, WA in August, 2016.

Deep in the heart of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, above Lake Chelan, a dramatic sight has unfolded for the last five summers as dozens of bulldozers, graders, loaders and excavators worked to reshape a rock-strewn mountain side.

The ground rumbles as giant dump trucks drive past, hauling yet another load of mine waste tailings across the 90-acre site. A giant crane hums as it pours more concrete for a footing. These are the sights and sounds of progress as hour by hour, day by day, the once toxic landscape of Holden Mine is restored.

“For the first time in nearly 60 years, clean water is once again flowing in Railroad Creek,” said Chelan District Ranger, Kari Grover Wier. “This is an important milestone and a significant win for aquatic species, wildlife species, and humans that depend on water from Railroad Creek and Lake Chelan.”

Abandoned in 1957, the Holden Mine contaminated groundwater with five toxic metals including aluminum, cadmium, copper, iron and zinc. These heavy metals washed downstream, polluting water in Railroad Creek, a major tributary to Lake Chelan. The metals also created a hazardous, hard, orange coating known as ferricrete on the streambed. Unstable waste rock and tailings piles from approximately 10 million tons of mined ore further compounded the problem.

Now the clean-up is showing demonstrable results including thousands of gallons of contaminated groundwater being treated daily through an on-site treatment plant and approximately nine million tons of tailings and 250,000 tons of waste rock piles were re-shaped and stabilized.

In fact this year crews have been planting native trees and shrubs atop former waste rock and tailings piles as well as working on an interpretive trail for the site.

An estimated $240 million dollars of economic contribution were delivered in Chelan and Douglas counties as personnel, lumber, fuel, and numerous other materials and equipment were locally sourced in nearby communities.

A point of distinction is that no tax-payer funds have been used to complete this work.

Remediation costs have been paid exclusively by Rio Tinto, a global mining company which inherited the responsibility for the cleanup from the Responsible Party, Intalco.

“This project is a testament to commitment and partnerships through government and private entities,” added Wier. “Five years later and a nearly 500 million dollar investment by Rio Tinto, a legacy of contamination has been turned into a legacy of clean water.”

Partners and stakeholders in this project include Rio Tinto, Holden Village, the Yakama Nation, Washington Department of Ecology and the Environmental Protection Agency. For a full video of site efforts, please see www.holdenminecleanup.com .