From 1889 to about 1907, the Monte Cristo mines in eastern Snohomish County produced about 310,000 tons of ore that included gold and silver, along with tons of tailings that harbor toxic metals such as arsenic, mercury and lead.
Monte Cristo, a ghost town since about 1920, is a popular hiking destination located about four miles southeast of Barlow Pass off the Mountain Loop Highway. Even before the area was annexed into the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest in 1994, people began calling for a clean-up of the old mining area. By 2006, the Washington Environmental Council was tired of waiting and sued the U.S. Forest Service for not moving fast enough.
Five years later, with funding in hand and the clean-up project planning in the final stages, Forest Service officials are hearing from environmentalists protesting the project.
Darrington District Forest Ranger Peter Forbes said it doesn't seem to matter what the Forest Service does, people are critical.
"We just keep in mind that the Forest Service's first concern is public health and safety," Forbes said.
Lynnwood hiker and Sierra Club member Bill Lider said he wants to hold the Forest Service accountable for its plans.
"At this point, the Forest Service cure for Monte Cristo is worse than the disease," said. "They seem to be rushing into this. Their plan fails to adequately disclose the environmental impacts and they failed to adequately involve the public. I don't want toxic metals in the streams any more than anybody else, but there is a higher probability that we will see runoff of these metals once the clean-up begins."
What most concerns Lider, Rebecca Wolfe and others in the Sierra Club right now is the impending logging of an old hemlock forest to make way for a new road to Monte Cristo.
"We haven't really seen how they are going to minimize the impacts of building the road," Wolfe said. "And then who is going to manage the road long term?"
The old road to the townsite is unstable and would cost more to repair than to build a new road that would allow dump trucks and other heavy equipment into Monte Cristo for the clean-up. The cutting of trees could begin near the end of September, Forbes said.
Lider recently hiked to the old townsite following the route of the new road, which he predicts will turn into an invitation to illegal activity in the area by people who drive off-road vehicles.
"The forest is ideal habitat for spotted owl and marbled murrelet," Lider said. "So, if you like Monte Cristo and the area around it, you better visit before the Forest Service hauls it away."
Soil, mine discharges and creeks at Monte Cristo contain metals in concentrations that exceed human health and environmental standards, Forbes said. The state Department of Ecology, federal Superfund officials and Cascade Earth Sciences of Spokane helped the Forest Service design the clean-up plan. It calls for protective practices so metals don't scatter during the clean-up, he said.
"We took two summers to try to figure a way to do this with the least impact," Forbes said. "We've involved archaeologists, biologists, multiple state and federal agencies, landowners, environmental groups and Indian tribes. We sent out letters, we contacted people, we had public meetings and we put information on the National Forest website. Perhaps we should have put a sign up at the Monte Cristo trailhead at Barlow Pass, but we've done everything required of us."
The clean-up project could begin in the summer of 2013, after the new road is complete, Forbes said.
The state Department of Ecology is accepting comments about the clean-up project until Monday at Department of Ecology Toxics Cleanup Program, 15 W. Yakima Ave., Suite 200, Yakima, WA 98902-3452 or by emailing Jason.Shira@ecy.wa.gov*.
More information is available at fortress.wa.gov/ecy/gsp and www.fs.usda.gov/goto/mbs/CERCLA.
Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Correction, Sept. 20, 2011: An earlier version of this story contained an incorrect email address.
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