Today, good works are often brushed aside or ignored, especially if done by one of the world’s largest mining companies. However Rio Tinto deserves kudos for its half-billion-dollar mine cleanup in Holden, a remote village in the picturesque North Cascade mountains just south of Lake Chelan.
Rio Tinto did not mine an ounce of copper or other precious metals at Holden. It acquired the site as part of a larger purchase. It gathered interested stakeholders together and ironed solutions outside the courtroom. Rio Tinto chose to remediate rather than litigate.
During World War II, Holden was one of the nation’s largest operating copper mines. Between 1937-57, Howe Sound Mining Company extracted 200 million pounds of copper, 40 million pounds of zinc, 2 million ounces of silver and 600,000 ounces of gold.
However, when the rich copper veins ran out, Howe Sound closed the mine and abandoned the site. The buildings were vacated, acid water was allowed to seep from the mine, and water from melting snow leached through mine dumps, filling streambeds with dissolved heavy metals. Fish and aquatic life died.
EPA estimates 70% of Superfund cleanups have been paid for by the “potentially responsible parties” (PRPs). The term “potentially” sparks litigation. However, 30% of the time the responsible party is unknown or unable to pay. In that case, public funds are necessary, but they are often insufficient and slow in coming.
One example is Vermont’s Pike Hill copper mines which opened in the 1800s. For decades, workers there mined millions of pounds of copper, but it was shuttered in 1919.
Mine owners deserted a 20,000-ton toxic waste pile laced with metals and sulfides. Those sulfides combined with water leached sulfuric acid into nearby streams. However, with no PRPs to foot the costs for remediation, cleanup has languished.
EPA project manager Ed Hathaway recently told Vermont Public: “The stream runs clear on the side of Corinth’s Pike Hill. But the air smells of sulfur. And the water is more acidic than lemon juice. Its pH is about 2, which means heavy metals like aluminum, manganese, iron and zinc are dissolved in the water.”
Vermont received $38 million through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that passed in 2021. State leaders plan to direct part of the money to cleanup.
However, since the Holden remediation was privately funded, it was completed in 2016. It took three years and cost nearly $500 million – all expensed to Rio Tinto.
A decade ago, Holden was a beehive of workers and machinery cleaning up mining and ore process operations. Acidic water and toxic sludge were diverted into a state-of-the art water processing plant. Waste dumps were walled off from Railroad Creek, an important tributary flowing into the upper end of Lake Chelan, one of our nation’s deepest and most pristine lakes.
Today, fish and aquatic life flourish in the Holden watershed.
In 1961, the property was sold to the Lutheran Church for $1 and today it is one of the church’s largest Bible camps. Holden is open year around. Its remoteness and restored environment make it a popular retreat site.
Thankfully, companies such as Rio Tinto stepped forward. Hopefully, as more mining worldwide is needed to meet skyrocketing metals demand for electric vehicles, batteries and wind turbines, avoiding contaminations will be a high priority and cleanup will be immediate.
If McKinsey & Co’s. critical metals assessment is accurate and “investments in mining, refining and smelting increase between $3 trillion and $4 trillion by 2030 – a 50% annual increase compared with the previous decade” there will be a giant spike in mining worldwide.
Hopefully, expanded mining won’t trigger another round of water contamination and cleanup. We have the technology to do better today. Meanwhile, Rio Tinto and its partners deserve long overdue kudos.
Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.
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