Rocks with tinges of orange coloring, seen here in June 2015, signal a presence of ore along a trail near the abandoned mining town of Monte Cristo in the Cascade Mountains.

Decontaminated Monte Cristo trail and townsite to be reopened

MONTE CRISTO — The U.S. Forest Service plans to reopen the popular Monte Cristo hiking trail and historic townsite by the end of May.

The trails and town were closed over summer and fall while crews cleaned up mine tailings contaminated with toxic minerals.

Planning for the cleanup started more than a decade ago. The biggest problems were arsenic and lead, which are found naturally in the same rocks where miners once searched for gold at Monte Cristo. Mining exposed the toxic minerals. The tailings have particularly high levels.

The cleanup centered on five locations near the old town and three mines farther out in the wilderness. Minerals were concentrated near the assay shack where ore was examined, the concentrator where it was processed, the collector where it was stored and the Comet Terminal where a tram up to Comet Mine ended. Tailings were removed from those sites.

Work also was done at the Rainy Mine near the old townsite and the Pride of the Woods, Mystery and Justice mines farther out. Water flowing out of the mines was rerouted so it no longer flows over piles of contaminated ore and directly into nearby streams.

Toxic materials removed during the cleanup were put in a repository built about a mile away from the town. The repository is basically an on-site landfill. It’s a two-tiered structure that can hold up to 23,000 cubic yards of waste.

There’s still some work left to do, but it isn’t expected to interfere with hiking or camping, Forest Service spokeswoman Tracy O’Toole said. This spring and summer, crews plan to replant areas that were cleared for the cleanup project, including a clearing around the repository. Workers are going to put up signs explaining the history of the ghost town and what was done during the cleanup.

The $5.5 million project was paid for with money from a bankruptcy settlement with Asarco, originally the American Smelting and Refining Company. Asarco owned Monte Cristo and other mining interests around the state. When the company went bankrupt, it gave up $11 million for cleanup at Monte Cristo, split equally between the Forest Service and the state Department of Ecology.

State officials plan to meet later this month with Forest Service workers so they can review what has been done so far at Monte Cristo. The Department of Ecology is planning its own cleanup project at the site, but that plan hasn’t been finalized yet, said Valerie Bound, section manager for the Toxics Cleanup Program. Property ownership is complex because some of the land is publicly owned while other parcels are private.

“That site is so remote and so huge,” Bound said. “Once you get everybody on board, and there can be a lot of people, the site tends to get its own momentum.”

Monte Cristo was a booming mining town from 1889 to 1907. Millions of dollars worth of gold and silver came out of the mountains. After mining slowed, the town became a tourist destination. There were two lodges that were much loved by people around the county until the road washed out in 1980, cutting off access. The lodges burned down not long after.

The Forest Service took over in the 1990s and now the area is a well-known hiking, bicycling and camping spot. On a typical summer day, a few hundred people tackle the trail, which follows an old access road.

A new access road was built to haul in equipment for the cleanup project. That road is going to be opened to the public for non-motorized use, including hiking, biking and horseback riding.

The trail is expected to reopen by Memorial Day, hopefully sooner, to coincide with the start of the busiest recreation season, O’Toole said.

Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; kbray@heraldnet.com

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