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Thursday, September 1, 2011

Holden mine remediation situation

I passed through Holden Village on my way to and from Image Lake a couple of weeks ago, and I checked-in with their manager of public works, Chris Shultz, who was kind enough to take some time out of his busy schedule to update me on the remediation project.

Things are well under way. Alternative 14 is the actionable alternative, meaning during the 2 years of 2013 and 2014 Holden Village will only house remediation workers and staff, no guests. There will be "work camps" held at Holden during that time to the rebuild the power and water infrastructure, taking advantage of the two summers without guests. These improvements will include a new water main, a "purple pipe" for fire protection, and burying the power lines.

The soccer field next to the school has been transformed into a parking area for project vehicles and portable offices. A very large piece of equipment on tracks 10 feet apart had gone through the Village earlier the day we went through, requiring power lines to be raised to let it pass. Workers were seen cutting trees along the road, walking about the Village in their orange vests, and waiting by the Lucerne dock for the boat.

Holden Village infrastructure improvements are
ongoing, and some very big ones are planned
along with the mine remediation. 

They anticipate having a new hydro plant once the project is done, as a much greater amount of power will be needed for water treatment after the 2 year remediation phase, and so a whole new "run of the river" hydro facility will be built along Railroad Creek itself, below the village, supplanting the antique hydro system on Copper Creek that runs the Village now.

Cutting has begun and will be extensive.

A logging team is on site now, and extensive tree removal will be necessary for the remediation, for several aspects:
  • 27 turnouts will be added to the road to allow heavy equipment to move in both directions during the two summers.
  • Railroad Creek itself is planned to be relocated several feet toward the Village, so as to bypass the tailings. The current creek bed will then be a collection trench for water to be treated.
  • The water treatment area below the lower tailings pile will have to be cleared.
  • A new "bypass" road will be built, including a new bridge crossing Railroad Creek below the lower tailings, allowing access to the south side of the creek where the remediation work will be done without going directly through the Village to the only bridge currently in place above the Village.
Holden Village will have the option to purchase the timber being cut at a reduced rate.

  Clearcutting along the Railroad Creek road is in progress.

 A talings pile, laced with cyanide and acid-forming iron sulfides[1], waits for remediation.

One issue of concern is simply the source of all the crushed rock needed to build the new retaining walls, caps, and treatment facilities. Bringing all that material in from down-lake has been ruled out as too expensive, so a series of new quarries and gravel pits will be dug around Holden, many right by the access road, ironically because of the current Roadless Area boundary just a short way from the road on the north side of the valley.

The land along the Railroad Creek road, from the road northward to the Roadless Area boundary, can be dug-up for crushed rock without changing the administrative Roadless Area boundary, so rather than "hide" the quarries back behind a screen of trees, they will be in full view of all the visitors. Perhaps that's for the better, if it draws attention to the impacts of trying to remediate a disaster like this -- hiding the impacts might make the project appear more benign than it is. The only real serious loss will be some old cedars along the creek below the Village, the rest of the trees slated to be cut are not so large or unique for the area.

 A hundred million dollars made -- and what's left 
for future generations?

In the "Portal Museum" of mining artifacts, now housed in the Village Center, I saw a sign totaling the value of all the minerals extracted during the mining -- $100,000,000. The sign didn't say in what year's dollars that valuation was made. How much the remediation will cost can only be estimated. According to Chris, it's all coming from the successor to the company that did the mining, Rio Tinto (meaning "colored river" - from a river in Spain that has run red from acid mine drainage since antiquity from... you guessed it... copper mining).

After two years of work, starting in 2015, the water quality downstream and the works in place to retain the tailings will be monitored for five years, then any additional work required will take place in 2020. This compromise was negotiated partly to reduce the impact on the Holden Village operation. The good news is that after that 5 year evaluation period, Rio Tinto will not be off the hook! If more work is needed, they will continue to be liable until standards for air and water quality are met, Chris said.

We expect to be observing the remediation process and monitoring. Any N3C members who go through Holden in the coming years are invited file their reports to ncccinfo @

And I noticed near that hundred-million-dollar sign, in a glass display case, there's a copy of none other than an old edition of The Wild Cascades from the 60s! NCCC has been advocating for the best outcome for the environment around Holden for quite some time, it seems.

HIKERS NOTE that the Copper Basin and upper end of the Railroad Creek trails are closed, and may remain so for the duration of the remediation work:

[1]  Correction from original post which said "arsenic." Cyanide was used to separate gold from the ore and became mixed with the slurry which was dumped and became the tailings piles, per (p.16), also acid-forming iron sulfides are present (p. 17).


Anonymous said...

I've been reading with major interest the articles you guys have written related to the Holden Mine Remediation. My grandfather was Oscar Getty. He built the cabins below Holden in Lucerne - started as a retreat, sort of, and then it became, basically, a little mining town housing the miners who worked in Holden.

My family still retains and maintains those cabins, and so it's been pretty interesting (and not so great) learning about the issues with Railroad Creek. My husband and I are up there as often as we can be and drink the water that comes from Railroad Creek.

Thanks so much for what you do.

Anonymous said...

Just one correction; there's no significant levels of Arsenic in the tailings, or in Railroad Creek below the tailings. The testing performed by the agencies has shown that the Arsenic levels below the tailings are no different than they are above the tailings, and are at a level that indicates leaching from natural formations (which do exist in the Cascade range).

The primary pollutant in Railroad Creek below the tailings is dissolved Iron. This is what is causing the cementing of the creek bed, and most of the reduction in aquatic life below the tailings. To put it simply, with the exception of the Iron content, the water downstream from the tailings is within drinking water standards. it is, however, above the limits for aquatic life, and thus the primary reason for the remediation.

The thing that we should all be pushing for, however, is the hydro-electric option. Whatever remedial action is taken, it is going to take significant amounts of electrical power to operate the pumping and heating systems. Due to the isolated location, this power will need to be generated on site. Holden's Copper Creek plant often drops to 40kW or less during the winter months, which is barely enough to operate the community. The only viable alternative to hydro power is diesel generators, but given that this plant (and its successors) will need to be operated for the next 100+ years, this is definitely not an environmentally sound path to take. from the prospects of fossil fuels over the next 100+ years, the risk of hauling that fuel up-lake, and then up the Holden road is significant.