Mining issues

Mineral Extraction continues to threaten the ecosystem

The first Euro-American explorers to reach this country reported two findings: unparalleled scenery and vast timber and mineral potential. Mining has gone boom and bust here many times since, and in the current era of increasing demand and diminishing supply, along with new extractive technologies and the antiquated 1872 General Mining Law, mining continues to threaten the greater North Cascades ecosystem, primarily its water quality, affecting fish and of course ultimately all of us. Here are some examples:

Great Excelsior Mine: A new threat

Near Mt. Baker Wilderness, Nooksack River, Wells Creek

A new threat to the North Cascades was announced recently in the form of proposed access improvements, repairs, and sampling at the Great Excelsior Mine. In a memo dated 12/30/13, the Mt. Baker District Ranger wrote:

The U.S. Forest Service is beginning environmental analysis for a proposed Plan of Operation to improve access, make repairs, and conduct sampling at the Great Excelsior Mine, which is located on an unpatented mining claim on the Mt. Baker Ranger District.  As we begin environmental analysis of the Plan of Operation as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), we are scoping for issues to frame the analysis of the environmental effects of the proposed action.

Additional information on this project is available HERE or directly from Eric Ozog, Interdisciplinary Team Leader, at (360) 691-4396 or eozog@fs.fed.us.

Email your comments to: tjmathis@fs.fed.us, or submit your written comments to:

d8b8de1443f596cab00013748ad5a3b8 Theresa Mathis,
Environmental Coordinator

Attn: Access Improvements and Repairs to the Great Excelsior Mine 
Mt. Baker Ranger District
810 State Route 20 
Sedro-Woolley, WA 98284
Comments may also be sent by fax to (360) 856-1934.

Bonanza Queen Mine: Inholding is returned to National Forest

Throughout the west, mining claims that have been proven can be held by their owners even if they are deep inside National Forest. These so-called “inholdings” can later be developed for mining, or logged, scarring the landscape and harming water quality downstream. In a remarkable success story, 300+ acres of an old mining claim near Silverton on the Mountain Loop Highway east of Granite Falls were purchased with $6 million dollars from the Federal Land and Water Conservation Fund in 2000, and added back to the National Forest that surrounds them (Boulder River Wilderness is on its west side). This action prevented further development here, safeguarding water quality in the Stilliguamish drainage, thus benefiting salmon. The Seattle Times described the situation in an article in 1999. NCCC lobbied Congress to appropriate the funds for the acquisition and coordinated closely with the property owners and The Nature Conservancy. Returning inholdings to the surrounding National Forest is a win-win for the owners, for the public, and for the land, and NCCC looks forward to helping in other similar cases.

Loowit Mine: Successfully stopped

South Washington

The proposed copper mine is located closely NE of Mount St. Helens (Loowit) at the headwaters of the Green River has been dealt a serious set-back. After a ground-swell of public opposition, the federal BLM reversed a preliminary decision it made a year ago to issue the lease to a Colorado-based mining operation. That ground-swell was comprised of over 33,000 comments, 99 percent of which voiced opposition to the mine, according to agency representative Michael Campbell. We have not only ourselves and involved local citizenry such as the Gifford-Pinchot Task Force to thank, but at least one Congressional champion too:

“We stood up and demanded that BLM keep inappropriate development out of sensitive lands, and fortunately they listened,” said U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who helped lobby against the mine.

While the BLM decision leaves room for potential future mining development, it is highly unlikely to pursue such action. Naturally, NCCC will keep a close eye on the situation, and will call our membership to action should it be required.

Buckhorn Mine: Water polluter is fined

Okanogan County

Buckhorn-Mine-Tour-1_46

After more than a decade of battles with various mining companies, a settlement was to reached to allow this mine to proceed in 2010. Significant mitigation measures were won by conservationists statewide at the time, led by the Okanogan Highlands Alliance. There is no pit mining (all subsurface shaft), all ore processing is done in a (more) controlled environment in the town of Republic, and perhaps most importantly, an independent entity was ordered to monitor water quality and water supply. It’s a good thing the operation was being monitored:

On July 16, 2012, Ecology assessed a $395,000 penalty to Crown when the operation’s water treatment systems failed to adequately capture and treat mine water during the 2011 and 2012 spring seasons, resulting in permit violations. Also in 2011, Ecology determined that discharges of treated mine water created slope instability and triggered a landslide that impacted a small stream below the mine. More…

Buckhorn serves as yet another example of how frequently mining operations damage the environment despite assurances to the contrary from the industry.

Holden Mine Remediation: Lesson learned?

Holden

Holden mine tailings, Railroad Creek, Copper Peak
Philip Fenner photo

The largest scar on the North Cascades, Holden mine is now in the process of being remediated to reduce its ongoing damage to the environment. Often referred to as a “Clean-Up,” the current remediation seeks instead to contain the damage – it will never be truly cleaned up. As such it will be a multi-year endeavor with many environmental impacts of its own. The mining company that inherited the mine obligation under the Superfund Act, Rio Tinto, is paying the remediation costs. Holden Village, a Lutheran retreat on the site of the former mining town, is housing the remediation workers and upgrading its infrastructure in the process. We have documented the situation in several recent issues of The Wild Cascades and we’ll continue to cover it as an example of why mining in this sensitive environment is something that is much better prevented than remediated later.

Kennecott Open Pit on Miner’s Ridge: A lasting victory

NCCC was instrumental in preventing development of an open pit copper mine in the core of scenic Glacier Peak Wilderness, proposed by Kennecott as far back as the mid 1950s. After years of protracted campaigning by NCCC, the project was permanently stopped, finally, in 2010. You can still see the scars left on the ridge near iconic Image Lake from the test adits, structures and helipad that remain today from the exploratory operations. Joel Connelly of the Seattle P-I summed up the history of this on his blog. Anyone who has ever hiked in this unique meadow country of unparalleled natural beauty can only shudder at the thought of how different it would be today had NCCC and its allies not prevailed.

Mining Law of 1872: It belongs in a museum!

NCCC supports revising the outdated and destructive General Mining Act of 1872. Washington Senator Maria Cantwell led efforts in recent years, working legislation through Congress to amend this law that gives away our public resources for pennies, but leaves us the taxpayers with multi-million/billion dollar clean-up costs, and a trashed ecosystem. Unfortunately revised bills have died in committee.

Geology of minerals in the North Cascades

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The USGS recently released an updated Geologic Map of Washington. We’re proud that NCCC member Rowland Tabor led the team that developed this map. Tabor also helped create the USGS website Geology of the North Cascades: A Mountain Mosaic  – we highly recommend it for a very accessible explanation of how the North Cascades were formed, with maps and a virtual field trip.* And Tabor’s classic 1965 book Routes and Rocks, though out of print, was recently scanned and made available online.

Another NCCC member, Jack McLeod, wrote and photographed North Cascades Highway Guide, 2013 UW Press, which includes many geologic notes in a travelogue format.

From the Washington Dept. of Natural Resources:  The northeastern Cascades are known for mineral deposits of various geologic ages. Triassic calc-silicate gneiss, biotite schist, and marble were hosts to the state’s largest copper producer, the Holden mine in Chelan County. It produced 207 million pounds of copper along with zinc, silver, and gold from 1938 to 1957. There is a porphyry copper deposit in a Cretaceous stock near Mazama. The largest copper deposit in the state is at Miners Ridge in Snohomish County. There, drilling has outlined a porphyry copper resource of 1.9 billion tons averaging 0.334% Cu and 0.015% MoS2. The host is the Miocene Cloudy Pass pluton dated at 21 Ma. This deposit will not be developed because it is within the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area. At Wenatchee, the Cannon mine is currently the second largest underground gold mine in the country. The stockwork mineralization is of the epithermal type and is associated with Eocene rhyodacite intrusions.

West of the Straight Creek fault, the northwestern Cascades are characterized by thrust plates stacked one on another. This thrust regime extends to the west into the San Juan Islands of the Puget Lowland. Marine sedimentary rocks and basalts of Permian to Jurassic age were involved in the tectonic deformation. The spectacular Twin Sisters mountains are made up of dunite. This ultramafic mass, measuring 4 miles wide and 11 miles long, of probable Jurassic age, contains the largest olivine reserves in the United States. During the Late Cretaceous orogeny, all the rocks were metamorphosed. Some, such as the Easton schist, were metamorphosed to high-pressure, low-temperature blueschist facies. Cretaceous subduction tectonism produced extensive regional zones of melange and mylonite accompanied by prehnite and pumpellyite metamorphism. In the northwestern Cascades, active olivine mining is taking place at Twin Sisters, and Permian limestone is mined in Whatcom County.

More 

*Material in this site has been adapted from a book,Geology of the North Cascades: A Mountain Mosaic by R. Tabor and R. Haugerud, of the USGS, with drawings by Anne Crowder. It is published by The Mountaineers, Seattle