I live in Washington State because late in the 19th century, a doctor told Adelbert Lorenzo Kool he had only a few months to live. Mr. Kool was a paymaster for James. J. Hill's Great Northern Railroad. On receiving the bad news, Mr. Kool quit his job, left his family, and established himself as a trapper on a remote mountain lake in the North Cascades. 40 years later, in the 1930s, Mr. Kool died when his still set fire to his cabin. His favorite saying was "T'Hell with Jim Hill and the Great Northern Railroad".
Mr. Kool's misdiagnosis in the late 1800s ultimately created a disturbance in my life which led to a succession of changes in my personal environment. But this isn't about my life, or even about A. L. Kool - it's about the disturbance, succession and restoration of an ecosystem.
About the same time A. L. Kool was settling in a short distance from what today is known as Railroad Creek, another of Jim Hill's employees was exploring the Cascades for a railroad right-of-way on the other side of Railroad Creek, and that's the incident that set off the chain of events I want to write about.
James Henry Holden didn't find a railroad route - the Great Northern eventually crossed the Cascades some 60-70 miles to south - but sitting on the side of a mountain, Holden spotted what looked like a copper ore body on a mountain side across the valley. It took Holden two weeks to cross the valley to his discovery. The country is rugged - likely the reason the Great Northern located farther south.
Holden staked his claim, tried to develop it, but by the time he died in 1918, no mine had been developed. There were a number of problems with the site. First, it was 12 miles up the side of a mountain from the tiny town of Lucerne. To get to Lucerne required a 45 mile boat trip up Lake Chelan - no road came within 20 miles, and doesn't to this day. The country is rugged - mountain goats, symbol of the Great Northern, like it.
In the late 1920s, a major ecological disturbance occurred in the Railroad Creek valley, which Holden's claim overlooked. Wikipedia defines a disturbance as:
... a temporary change in average environmental conditions that causes a pronounced change in an ecosystem. Outside disturbance forces often act quickly and with great effect, sometimes resulting in the removal of large amounts of biomass. Ecological disturbances include fires, flooding, windstorm, insect outbreaks, as well as anthropogenic disturbances such as forest clearing and the introduction of exotic species . Disturbances can have profound immediate effects on ecosystems and can, accordingly, greatly alter the natural community. Because of these and the impacts on populations, these effects can continue for an extended period of time.Disturbances are part of the natural process of ecosystem development. The Mount St Helens eruption which flattened thousands of acres of forest was a disturbance. Disturbances drive a process call succession, which is the series of changes that occur as ecosystems respond to disturbance. Succession is going on right now in the Mount St Helens area, as pioneer species colonize the area of fallen trees, and later species replace the pioneers.
For example, lightning may start a fire which burns a patch of forest. The combination of fire and opening the forest canopy will give rise to pioneer species, a forb like fireweed, or shrub species like snowbrush (ceanothus) which waits as long as 200 years for fire to help germinate its seeds. Tree species - pines, firs, spruce - will struggle to compete with shrubs and forbs for sunlight, water and nutrients, but eventually the original colonizers die off and late successional species like trees will come to dominate - until the next disturbance.
At Railroad Creek, the exotic species introduced was a subspecies of the family Hominidae (the great apes): homo sapiens sapiens. A particular band of these bipedal primates (the Howe Sound Mining Company) had obtained the rights to Holden's mining claim. The disturbance in 1928 was that Howe Sound began developing the mine site.
While members of this species had transiently occupied this site since the early holocene era, when glaciers receded, the Howe Sound band was intent on establishing a more permanent habitat. Peculiar to this species, however, is the need for certain externally supplied nutrients, and in 1931 one nutrient source (the price of copper) was sufficiently depleted for Howe Sound to temporarily abandon their habitation of the site.
In 1937, still in the depths of the Depression, the price of copper was high enough for Howe Sound to resume mine development. About 100 men completed the mile-long tunnel to the ore body, improved the road, built the mill (stamp mill, ball mill, floatation cells) and constructed mine buildings. Washington State refused to permit the construction of a dam and powerhouse, so a transmission line was run over 50 miles from the then-Washington Water Power dam on the Chelan River.
The minesite on the south side of Railroad Creek had accommodations for 100 people, but accommodations for 450 people were needed after 1937. A townsite was located on the north side of Railroad Creek and consisted of four 50-man dormitories, ten family homes, guest house, a 264-person dining hall, a one-room school, and staff house for single engineers and management staff. The town was completed in 1938 and two more dormitories, an addition to the school, recreation hall, and hospital were added. The hospital had rooms for patients, dentist office and apartment for the resident doctor.The Holden Mine (as it became known) was a union mine in a company town. Grocery shopping meant sending a list 45 miles downlake and waiting for delivery on a return trip. Holden had no telephone, and (when it became available) no television. Newspapers were at best a day late and radio reception was sporadic. It had a school with two teachers - one for grades 1-4, one for grades 5-8. High school students had to board with friends or relatives on the outside during the school year. But Holden was otherwise a self-sufficient community:
The largest town building and center of the community was the recreation hall. It contained a commissary, county library, and a multi-purpose gymnasium for theater, movies, dances, community meetings and religious services, plus a four-lane bowling alley, lockers and showers, pool tables, card room, and barber shop.
The architecture of the company buildings and homes was rustic with high pitched roofs and wood shingle siding stained in shades of greens, rusts and browns to blend with the surrounding forest. At the request of some of the workers for a family campsite, the company surveyed and platted a site west of the main townsite, put in sewers, water mains, and electric lines and rented the 50'x100' lots with facilities for $20 per year and electricity at one cent per kwh. Because the camp was inside a national forest, the homes had to adhere to Forest Service requirements. Approximately 100 neat and attractive homes were built by the employees. This addition separated the community geographically and socially, leaving single workers and management in the main part of town and working class families in the residential addition.
The multi-purpose recreation hall served as the gathering place for community events. Bowling leagues were formed for men and women ... The gymnasium floor was painted with lines for games such as basketball and badminton, and was protected by a heavy canvas for placement of charis for meetings, movies, church services, and theater productions on a stage complete with curtain, dressing rooms, and footlights. Men gathered around pool tables and an area set aside for cards where a poker game could could wipe out a miner's hard earned pay. The "lunch counter" served soda fountain treats, hamburgers, and a simple short order menu. A library was well-stocked with books.In 1957, a disturbance in the supply of nutrients dependent on the price of copper recurred, and Howe Sound shut the mine permanently. The Forest Service, which had throughout owned the land on which the mine and town sat, bulldozed the miner's homes - a fire hazard. Howe Sound gutted the mill (it's steel skeleton remains) but retained ownership of the mining claim and related buildings - dormitories, dining hall, rec hall and others.
In summer, softball leagues were formed, and the bleachers were always filled with supporters. Fishing, hunting, hiking, and backpacking was literally in Holden's back yard. Gardens with vegetables and flowers were nurtured during the short summer months, and deer frequently wandered into camp to dine on the delacacies. Hardy souls braved the icy water of Railroad Creek for a swim. Wild huckleberries and blackberries were gathered (watch out for a bear) and turned into jams, jellies, and pies.
The annual Fourth of July celebration and picnic offered free soda pop and ice cream with contests and races for all ages: pie and watermelon eating, gunny sack and wheelbarrow races, log sawing and nail hammering contests, ball throwing, long jumping and three-legged races, to name a few. Fireworks were strictly taboo because of forest fire danger.
In winter, the community enjoyed a ski area complete with rope tow powered by a Model A Ford engine. Sledding was popular and exciting on the steep roads, and much fun was had on wild rides on toboggans made of corrugated tin. Children made tunnels in the deep snow, jumped off roofs, made snowmen, and engaged in snowball fights. Ice skating was for the very dedicated. Almost as fast as a pond would be cleared, it would be covered with two feet of fresh snow. Santa Claus arrived in Holden every year with a gift for every youngster in the community, and every family received a turkey from the company.
Leaders for Boy Scouts, Campfire Girls, and Brownies kept the community young people busy with many activities. Teachers of piano, ballet, and tap dancing were found among the residents, and recitals were enjoyed by proud parents as well as the community. A drama club was formed, and music for dances was provided by a band of local talent.
Ladies formed bridge, pinnocle, canasta, garden, and sewing clubs. They raised money for hospitals and other charities in addition to rolling bandages and knitting scarves during WWII. Men labored at hard, physical work, and yet they found time to build their own homes, lead scout troops, coach softball and basketball teams, fight forest fires, and enjoy an evening in a "men only" poker club.
In spite of the disadvantages, most "Holdenites" remember their Holden years as a very special time in their life.
Howe Sound attempted to sell their rights and buildings for $100,000, but found no takers. The Howe Sound subspecies was finally succeeded by a different primate subspecies which could thrive on much lower nutrient levels: Lutherans. For the tax writeoff, Howe Sound donated the site in 1961 to the Lutheran Bible Institute of Seattle (ELCA affiliated) for use as a religious retreat.
In the 1960s, David Brower and John McPhee passed through the site, renamed Holden Village. Brower had headed the Sierra Club and was a prime mover in the creation of the Glacier Peak Wilderness - which borders Holden - and North Cascades National Park, which is a few miles uplake from the Lucerne landing. In McPhee's book about Brower - Encounters with the Archdruid - Brower, McPhee and even a mineral geologist (Parks) comment on dilapidated state of the mine site and the accumulated scrap and trash. At that time, Holden Village was probably in a sorry state.
Since then, the late successional Lutherans have rehabilitated the buildings and removed much of the trash. Holden Village is more or less carbon neutral. Volunteers designed and built a 250 kW hyrdoelectric plant, which diverts a Railroad Creek tributary through a powerhouse before finally emptying into the creek. Holden's bill of fare is vegetarian 6 days a week - mostly because meat waste (fat, bone) doesn't compost well and attracts bears. What waste Holden doesn't compost is trucked to Lucerne and then barged to a transfer station in Chelan, headed for a landfill.
Holden is operated and administered by volunteers. Most receive only room and board for 4 to 6 hours of daily work over periods lasting from a few weeks to a year. Some specialists - electrician, mechanic, food supervisor - receive stipends on the order of $500 per year and accomodations in the former mine managers' "chalets".
Holden Village places very few religious restrictions on guests or volunteers - non-Lutherans or atheists are equally welcome. While most guests participate in religious-oriented seminars and other activities, the single requirement is attendance at a short early evening service (the ice cream parlor opens immediately after). Even that service has a non-religious purpose due to Holden's remoteness. For example, a few years ago an aged Native American man rolled into Holden on his wheelchair. The next morning, as was the custom for the elderly in some tribes, he rolled off into the wilderness - search parties never found him. The evening service is as much a head count as a ritual. People sometimes get lost.
Holden is inexpensive - per person, the cost is around $60 per night (less for families), and includes the bus ride to and from the boat landing and all meals. For about $5, the Lutherans will also transport hikers and their gear from Lucerne to town.
Besides being accomodationg, the Lutherans at Holden are anti-war, science-based environmentalists and liberal. Holden Village has its own version of "Gay Pride Week" and has had both woman and gay pastors and adminstrators.
But disturbance and succession have their downsides as well. Windstorms that blow down trees can trigger a beetle epidemic. Fire and logging can convert forest to shrubfields. And copper mining is no different.
Except for some places like the Upper Penninsula of Michigan, where pure copper boulders were laying on the ground, most copper is mined in the form of sulkfide ores. The copper is not only locked up in chemical compounds with sulfur and other elements, the copper compounds are distributed in rock with other metal sulfides. While the Holden mine produced over 100,000 tons of copper, the same ore also produced 20,000 tons of zinc, 25 tons of gold and 40 tons of silver, and metals like iron, arsenic and cadmium weren't extracted.
Holden Mine produced about 2000 tons of ore (rock) daily. The ore removed from the mine was first crushed in a stamp-mill (like hitting it with a big hammer) and then into a powder in a ball-mill (like a cement mixer with steel balls rolling around to crush the rock into powder). The powdered ore was then mixed with chemicals - some nasty - and dumped into a tank and agitated. Air blown into the tank formed a foam on the top, like the head on a glass of beer.
The chemical additives made the desireable metal compounds hydrophobic (sort of water repellant), and they attached to the air bubbles and rose into the foam, where they were scraped off. The concentrated ore (still in sulfide form) was loaded 5 tons at a time into containers. Three containers were loaded on a truck and driven 12 miles to Lucerne, where the concentrate was loaded onto a barge for the 45 mile trip to Chelan. At Chelan, the concentrated ore was transported 4 miles to the railhead, and then 175 miles to the ASARCO smelter in Tacoma, where metals were finally produced. The waste products in the tanks settled out and were tapped off and dumped - the waste products became "tailings".
In 20 years of operation, the Holden Mine produced less than 150,000 tons of metal from 57 miles of tunnels and shafts - but it produced 10 million tons of tailings. 1.5 million tons were dumped back into the mine. 8.5 million tons were piled alongside Railroad Creek covering 90 acres 150 feet deep.
When it rains, water filters through the tailings piles, and picks up (leaches) metal compounds - mostly iron and copper compounds, but others too. The iron was never extracted from the ore. The copper was incompletely extracted. The contaminated rain water, along with acid mine drainage (AMD) from the now-flooded mine flows into Railroad Creek. Holden Mine is also a Superfund site.
The Forest Service lists the hazards from Holden Mine:
* Risk to human health due to direct contact with the tailings, other wastes at the Site, and groundwater that exceeds federal and state drinking water standards;The concern in the first bullet point is with groundwater, not surface water. There are no nearby users of groundwater associated with the mine, and while the groundwater probably does mix with the surface water, principally Railroad Creek:
* Leaching of metallic contaminants which degrade surface water quality and reduces aquatic life in Railroad Creek;
* Cementation of isolated portions of Railroad Creek's streambed, further reducing aquatic life;
* Risk to terrestrial receptors due to exposure to tailings, contaminated soils, surface water, and other wastes; and
* Continuing potential for a sudden loss of tailings into Railroad Creek during a seismic or flood event.
Results for metals analyzed in Railroad Creek water samples were compared to state drinking water standards and EPA human health criteria. Iron concentrations in Railroad Creek consistently exceeded the drinking water MCL (maximum contamination level) of 300 ug/L. This standard is set for aesthetic conditions rather than health affects. There were no other instance of drinking water standards being exceeded.The "benthic invertebrates" referred in the title of the Dept of Ecology's report indicates one of the two most serious problems with Holden Mine water pollution. "Benthic" refers to bottom-dwelling organisms in a body of water. "Invertebrates" in this case are organisms like mayflies, caddis-flies, stone-flies and other insects, as well as some worms, like nematodes. Their ecosystem has been seriously disturbed by the mine wastes, and the likely succession is from a healthy mix of invertebrates to one dominated principally and in smaller numbers by predator and metal-tolerant species.
Effects of Holden Mine on the Water, Sediments and Benthic Invertebrates of Railroad Creek - Washington State Department of Ecology
The invertebrates perfom two important functions in the creek. One is housekeeping - they process algae, leaves and other organic matter to recycle nutrients and keep the stream clean, and predators help keep their number in check. They also serve as a food source for other predators higher on the food chain - in this case rainbow trout, who are in turn a food source for bears and raptors like osprey and eagles.
While leaching of metal compounds is doing some damage already - drastically reducing invertebrate populations downstream from the mine - the situation would be considerably worse if large amounts of tailings were suddenly deposited in the creek. This nearly happened in 2003, when heavy rains caused increased tailings erosion and increased stream flow threatened the tailings piles. It could also happen caused by seismic activity - nearby Glacier Peak is a volcano, and the area is seismically active.
Either of these events could affect more than Railroad Creek, which is quite remote. Railroad Creek drains into Lake Chelan, which provides drinking water for more than 6,600 permanent residents, plus summer residents and tourists. Lake Chelan, in turn, drains into the Columbia River. Contamination of any of those bodies of water could also reach levels that could harm salmon populations.
Under the Superfund (CLERCA) statute and a consent decree, Howe Sound's successor - Intalco, now apparently part of Alcoa - has done remediation studies and a final plan, costing from $30 million to $100 million and paid for by Intalco, is due shortly.
But the story doesn't end there. Remeber that the ore concentrates were sent to a smelter in Tacoma? The smelter was run by ASARCO (formerly American Smelting and Refining) - a company responsible for 20 Superfund sites (next time you visit the Guggenheim Museum, cough once or twice for ASARCO - one of the Guggenheim investments that built it).
The ASARCO smelter in Tacoma operated for nearly 100 years (it closed in 1985) and serviced many more mines than just the Holden Mine - although during its operation Holden was the largest copper mine in Washington State. The ASARCO smelter and evirons is also a Superfund site, and responsible for something called the "Tacoma Plume".
The former Asarco copper smelter in Ruston, Washington, operated for almost 100 years. The copper smelter's smokestack released arsenic, lead, and other harmful chemicals throughout the Puget Sound region.The Tacoma plume surrounds Puget Sound, and although in most places levels are comparable to Thurton County's and not a major health hazard (and "don't eat dirt" is always good advice regardless), in some areas, like Vashon Island in Puget Sound, levels are considerably higher and more dangerous.
Some of these chemicals, particularly arsenic and lead, settled into the upper layers of the dirt in Thurston County. The levels of arsenic and lead in Thurston County are not an immediate public health threat; however, people should limit the amount of dirt they contact and accidentally eat.
ASARCO has been (or is) in bankruptcy, and is currently Mexican-owned, and has numerous other large Superfund liabilities, so the financial responsibility for this cleanup may not be as clear as for the Holden Mine.
A lot of people will read the last part of this story and ask "What are we doing to the planet?" and advocate banning mining and smelting operations. Some will complain about the aesthetic mess left by a mine situated in a fantastic valley ringed with forested and snowcapped mountains. Banning mining has problems of disturbance and undesireable succession as well.
Begin with scale: the Holden Mine site at its peak - including miner's housing - covered about 300 acres. That's less than half the size of Central Park (more bears too, but fewer elephants) and a fraction of the 7.5 million acres of National Forest, National Parks and wilderness areas that runs diagonally across Washington State from the Canadian border to the Oregon border. Outside of that 300 acres, Holden's aftermath covers, with diminishing effect farther from the mine, about 12 miles of Railroad Creek.
Next ask yourself: Am I willing to reduce my consumption of copper? No need to answer, as dKos environmentalists already have. The principle use of copper is as an electrical conductor - as wire. There are substitutes. Some came from the same mine as Holden's copper - gold or silver - and will have the same envrionmental impact or worse. Aluminum is less energy efficient and has its own set of environmental problems. Brass and bronze are alloys of copper. Motors, generators, transformers, electrical distribution lines (the grid), relays, circuit boards - all use copper in large amounts. Nearly every environmental diary demands more of those things and more copper: hybrid or electric cars, wind generators, turbines in nuclear plants, local solar generation, light rail. No environmentalist who cares about solving climate change wants to use less copper.
Closing US mines and smelters - whether on private or public lands - leads to one of our largest and fastest growing exports: global environmental degradation. It's easy to locate the next mine or smelter in Chile or the Congo (both copper producers) where there is no Superfund to do cleanup. It's probably not necessary to go into the impact multi-national extractive industries - oil, minerals, lumber - have on local politics and quality of life. You can just recall Salvador Allende, or the War in Iraq.
No copper isn't an alternative, and neither is importing ever more copper (and exporting ever more environmental destruction and repression). But there is an alternative - requiring the use of new knowledge and implementing new technologies, along with strong enforcement. We don't have to create problems in the first place that take 50 years to begin to repair. If they can be remediated, they can be prevented.
That leaves the aesthetics of the Holden/Railroad Creek valley and the mine and dump that sit in it. (There are photo links at end, but none do it justice).
When I get off the boat at the Lucerne landing (the town no longer exists), instead of throwing my pack in the Holden truck and climbing on the school bus to go to Holden Village, I usually throw my pack on my back and head up the left side of Railroad Creek and away from the creek - just as A. L. Kool did 100 years ago, and to the same lake. If I wanted to (and I never do because of rattlesnakes and mosquitoes) I could pitch my tent in the shade of Kool's stone chimney - all that's left of the cabin that burned down and killed him.
One summer though, my atheist daughter was a slave to the Lutherans, doing housekeeping and laundry, and my wife and I did throw our packs on the truck and climb on the school bus to visit her (and camped a mile out of town on the wilderness boundary - which exempted us from church attendance and made us first in line at the ice cream parlor). There's a point where you come around a curve and are looking straight at the tailings piles, and they're a god-awful sight. But once you're in sight of the mill skeleton and town too - it isn't that bad.
I know a little about the civilizations that built Machu Piccu and the Parthenon, and that would make those all the more fascinating to see in person. I probably never will. Growing up a blue collar city kid, I still know a lot more about the civilization that built Holden and left ruins behind - I'm guessing that it's the same kind of feeling in either case. Falling down mine mills aren't works of art, but they do represent an impressive technological and social accomplishment nonetheless.
It turns out I'm not the only one who feels that way:
Fifteen-year-old villager Adrienne Cryer said, however, the tailings are an important part of life and ritual at Holden.In fact, most people I know who've been to Holden would agree.
The surface of the tallest pile provides a place for many village activities including basketball games, stargazing and high school graduation.
"I feel like the mine is a huge part of Holden," Cryer said. "It is Holden. That's how Holden started.
"As much as it is an environmental hazard, I just don't want to get rid of it. It makes me feel comfortable."
Stewart said the tailings serve a more important role than a playground for villagers.
"The tailings piles keep us honest," he said. "They're very obvious scars and wounds that we live with and continue to live with, along with the reclamation work."