Cleanup under way to resuscitate Monte Cristo ghost town

MONTE CRISTO — There’s a little bit of everything in the complicated cleanup of this ghost town.

The area has endangered species, cultural and historical artifacts, sensitive river ecosystems, private properties and federally protected wilderness, on-site coordinator Joseph Gibbens said.

Work started last month on a project that’s been pending for a dozen years to clean up contaminated mine tailings around the old Monte Cristo townsite. A new access road and temporary bridges were built over the past three years and the cleanup itself now is under way, tentatively scheduled to be finished this summer.

Monte Cristo, off the Mountain Loop Highway near Barlow Pass, was a bustling mining town from 1889 to 1907. Prospectors scaled mountains looking for the rust-red streaks that marked valuable veins of gold and silver. They mined millions of dollars worth of metals, and in doing so left behind tailings rife with toxins.

“Arsenic and lead are really the bad actors,” Gibbens said. The elements occur naturally in the rock where miners toiled, and the mining exposed them.

Monte Cristo has long lured people. It was a tourist destination after the mines closed. Two lodges once did booming business there, and Monte Cristo became one of the most popular destinations in the county. In December 1980, the road washed out. The lodges burned down a few years later.

Monte Cristo got new life in the 1990s when the U.S. Forest Service took over much of the land. It’s a popular hiking, bicycling and camping destination. A nice weekend usually draws up to 300 people on the old access road, now an easy-to-navigate route, Gibbens said.

That’s not the case this year. The road is closed until further notice. Trails that branch off remain open.

The cleanup is focused on five locations near the townsite and three mines farther out. Near town, work is focused on the Rainy Mine, the assay shack where ore was examined, the concentrator where it was processed, the collector where it was stored and the Comet Terminal, where ore from Comet Mine came down on a tram. Farther out, water draining from the Pride of the Woods, Mystery and Justice mines is to be rerouted so it doesn’t travel directly over polluted waste ore into the river. Crews intend to remove waste rock at the Pride of the Woods, but there are no plans to excavate or block off the Mystery and Justice mines.

“If you can get into it now, you’ll be able to get into it later,” Gibbens said.

Toxic material is to be secured in a repository about a mile away. It’s essentially an on-site landfill, Gibbens said.

Three acres have been cleared for the two-tiered structure, which can hold up to 23,000 cubic yards of waste. A foot of compacted material goes on bottom with rock and lime above it to neutralize the metals. Then the contaminated ore and debris can be put in. It’ll be topped with a liner, a cap, three feet more of compacted material and vegetation.

Monitoring wells are being installed around the repository to track groundwater quality, Gibbens said.

The U.S. Forest Service started researching cleanup options at Monte Cristo in 2003.

There’s been friction. In 2006, the Washington Environmental Council sued the Forest Service for not cleaning quickly enough. The lawsuit was dismissed. Recently, the Pilchuck Audubon Society, Sierra Club and Lynnwood engineer Bill Lider urged the Forest Service to stop or drastically scale back the cleanup. They’ve argued that the repository is too close to the river and work is disruptive for endangered marbled murrelet, spotted owl and bull trout. In a May 20 letter to the Forest Service, Sierra Club representatives worried the repository could fail and pollute the South Fork Sauk. They suggested a cap-in-place approach where toxic materials would be buried where they’re found.

Officials ruled out that option after looking at cost, workload and potential effect on the environment and historical integrity of the town, Gibbens said.

Two regulatory hurdles remain. The Forest Service is seeking federal approval to use helicopters to haul supplies to the Pride of the Woods Mine in the Henry M. Jackson Wilderness, where machinery isn’t allowed. Officials also are waiting on a decision from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife on whether contractors can clear an area for a refueling station near the base of the access road.

Crews are working around private properties, as well. The state Department of Ecology is asking permission from six Monte Cristo property owners to clean up their land. So far, three have agreed.

“The biggest issue is finding the people,” Gibbens said.

The cleanup is being paid for with money from Asarco, originally the American Smelting and Refining Company. Asarco owned Monte Cristo and other mining interests. When the company went bankrupt, it provided $11 million for cleanup, split equally between the Forest Service and Department of Ecology.

The Department of Ecology expects to firm up its plans this fall. The goal is to stretch the money as far as possible, said Valerie Bound, section manager for the Toxics Cleanup Program.

“We don’t want to be in a situation where we have a bunch of data on how bad the contamination is, and then not be able to do anything about it,” she said.

The Forest Service aims to finish work this summer and restore access this fall or next spring.

Some work is planned next year but likely won’t result in closures. The last steps will be replanting work sites and installing signs to explain the area’s history, show what was done to clean it up and urge people to respect it, Gibbens said.

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

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