Weather, bureaucracy delay cleanup work at Monte Cristo

MONTE CRISTO — A combination of a wet spring and delayed report-writing has pushed back the scheduled cleanup of a contaminated former mining town in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

Monte Cristo’s last mines closed more than a century ago, and the last businesses were closed in the 1970s.

It remains popular with hikers and outdoor enthusiasts, even though the site of the former boomtown is littered with an estimated 18,000 cubic feet of tailings contaminated with arsenic, lead, cadmium, mercury and other toxic metals.

The U.S. Forest Service had planned to start some of the cleanup work at the town site this summer, but now the bulk of the work won’t start until 2015.

“Rather than rushing and trying to get out this year, we’re going to try and do the entire removal in 2015,” said Joseph Gibbens, the Forest Service’s on-site coordinator responsible for most mine cleanup sites in Washington.

Rather, the Forest Service is trying to use this summer to complete the access road and prepare the site so next summer’s work can start at the earliest opportunity.

The cleanup is funded by an $11 million judgment awarded to the Forest Service and the state Department of Ecology in the bankruptcy of Asarco, originally called the American Smelting and Refining Co., one of the last mining companies to operate at Monte Cristo.

Gibbens estimated the Forest Service has spent only about $1.5 million of that money on the work done so far.

Access is the biggest obstacle. A landslide in 2006 blocked the county road that led up to Monte Cristo from the Mountain Loop Highway east of Granite Falls. A diversion of the South Fork Sauk River also wiped out a portion of that road.

With the road too unstable for vehicle traffic and too expensive to repair, the Forest Service needed to build a new access road in order to get its heavy equipment up the valley of the South Fork Sauk River.

That includes building three new bridges over creeks. One was finished in 2013, and two more are scheduled to be finished this summer.

But parts of Monte Cristo are still privately owned, which means that cleanup on those tracts is governed by the Department of Ecology.

Ecology needs to draw up an action plan that grants the Forest Service authority to negotiate with private landowners and then submit it for public comment before any work can start.

Time quickly slipped away as heavy spring rains shortened the work season.

Jason Shria, the site manager with Ecology’s toxics cleanup program, had hoped the action plan would have been done in April, but it is now looking like July. And the Forest Service was doing its part to delay that too.

“I’m waiting on engineering design reports from them as well,” Shira said.

Gibbens noted that the designs should be completed this week.

This summer, the main hiking route to Monte Cristo from Barlow Pass remains open to outdoor adventurers. Hikers can also go up the access road on the east bank of the Sauk River, although work crews might close part of those areas while they’re building bridges.

Among those watching the progress of the cleanup is Bill Lider, a civil engineer and outdoorsman who has several concerns about how the cleanup is being handled.

Among those concerns are whether the site selected for collecting the mine tailings is adequate and whether construction noise will disturb nesting marbled murrelets, a threatened species of seabird.

A repository pit for the tailings will be dug a mile north of Monte Cristo a little uphill from the river.

Gibbens said the Forest Service will drill three monitoring wells this summer at the site of the pit, to measure both stability of the slope and to watch for future leeching of metals from the tailings into the groundwater. The pit itself will be lined and capped.

The Forest Service’s access road does run through murrelet nesting habitat, Gibbens said, but the contractors will be required to not begin work during the nesting season (spring and summer) until two hours after sunrise and stop work two hours after sunset.

In addition, the Forest Service will be monitoring noise levels in the work area.

“(Lider’s) concerns are valid but we are addressing them through the design process,” Gibbens said.

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; cwinters@heraldnet.com.

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