Brian Wilkinson / 26 July, 2014


By Amy Joi O’Donoghue, Deseret News

HOLDEN VILLAGE, Wash. — Two very different worlds are in collision, carrying out a mission that is on one level in disharmony and in contradiction. Community members of Holden Village, a Lutheran retreat that hosts visitors from all denominations, engage in daily prayer, group sing-a-longs and near constant hilarity in their quest for spiritual renewal. Hilarity is one of the core values inherent in their conviction that they have been called by God to this place. Across the creek, just a short distance from the village in these northern Cascade Mountains of central Washington, the Rio Tinto Holden Mine remediation project unfolds with blasting at a quarry, 40-ton mining trucks rumbling down a road, the snarling sharp jaws of logging blades devouring thousands of trees.

Holden Mine was once one of North America’s largest producing copper mines, delivering $66 million worth of metals despite the challenges of access, its isolation and its 200 inches of annual snowfall. Rio Tinto, owner of Utah’s Kennecott operation, inherited the defunct mine site seven years ago through a business transaction and agreed to assume responsibility for the cleanup, which began in earnest last year. To get to this remote mine during its operation from 1938 to 1957, you traveled by boat for 40 miles north on Lake Chelan, the third deepest lake in the United States, plunging to a depth of 1,500 feet.

Today, you can arrive there by hydroplane or helicopter as well, although the ferry remains by far the most popular mode of transportation. Upon landing, the mining village sits 10 miles up a winding, dirt road that climbs 1,100 feet to a spot in this modern day world where there are still no cars, just school buses, little to no Internet service and power that comes from a diesel generator. The village is actually chalets, lodges, a bowling alley, a recreational hall and a mess hall. There’s also a post office, a hose house and a collection of buildings and dormitories that housed miners and their families, hosting dances and socials and pool tournaments.

On this day, the workers who are repairing the damage done from the mining are snatching mouthfuls of ice cream in a parlor with a checkered black and white floor. They have orange construction vests and hard hats on. In the same room, a few of the village ladies are dancing and occasionally holding hands while they sing “Jeremiah was a bullfrog,” from the Three Dog Night song “Joy to the World.” It seems to be an incongruent blend of imagery and people, but no one appears uncomfortable.

“I have definitely noticed the people doing the work across the creek coming and discovering the place for themselves,” said Chuck Carpenter, who with his wife, Stephanie, are executive directors of Holden Village.

“This is a time of renewal. Because of our efforts or despite our efforts — we have seen that with the Forest Service, with Rio Tinto, the stressful strife that can be — that relationships are really key,” he added.

“I don’t know how often you have a huge mining company really getting along well and working cooperatively at something that they are, granted, ordered to do. But they are not cutting corners.”

On hiatus

The village has had to hit the pause button in one sense during this time of remediation. For the last 51 years, Holden has welcomed more than 200,000 people. Some come to the religious retreat to stay for a week, for a few months, for a few years. Some arrive as children, return as parents, and come back again as grandparents. “We have all denominations,” said Stephanie Carpenter. “We have atheists who say God does not exist enjoying this place.”

During this $200 million remediation project, over the three years of on-the-ground attention it takes to repair the mountain, protect the water and handle the tons of tailings, the village is on hiatus from its yearly welcome of an estimated 5,000 people. Instead, the village is hosting the contract employees of Magnus Pacific, MWH engineering, Forest Service supervisors overseeing the work and the Rio Tinto employees orchestrating the entire thing in one of the more telling contradictions: repairing a mountain where they never once pulled out even an ounce of ore. “This is really a good example of how mining is not done today,” said Dave Cline, Rio Tinto’s project manager. “We are cleaning up the dirty laundry of a company that walked away.”

In 1960, years after the price fell out of copper and the mountain had given all the ore it had to give, the original mining company agreed to sell its mining claims and patents to the village buildings to the Lutheran Bible Institute. The price tag was $1, and the Holden Village Lutheran retreat was born. “Absolutely for Holden Village, immediately when the gift was given, there was a question as to what was happening with the environmental effects of the leftovers of the mine,” said Chuck Carpenter. The mining left behind 8.5 million tons of tailings. They look like huge mounds of gray dirt, but once they are oxidized, the legacy of Copper Mine’s expungement of ore shines through in an apricot hue.

Villagers tell of the afternoon wind kicking up, and with it gusts that would carry the dust from the tailings into the sky to create orange clouds that dogged people with respiratory problems. One of the three distinct tailings piles served as the emergency evacuation zone for the village. Residents would scamper up the pile and use it to access hiking trails, or spend a few hours playing Frisbee golf on an accumulation of mine leftovers that include metals such as arsenic, cadmium and chromium. Acid mine drainage from the tailings are in the groundwater that feeds into Railroad Creek, which dumps into Lake Chelan. Heavy metal concentrations downstream of the village are impacting portions of 10-mile drainage, compromising fish and the macroinvertebrates they feed on. The village occupies land owned by the U.S. Forest Service and the keyhole shaped piece of ground is surrounded by designated wilderness.

The cleanup

By the 1990s, the Forest Service and the Environmental Protection Agency, through the Clean Water Act, ordered a cleanup. Some early work was done on the tailings piles, but some of those piles were breached by the extremely high flows of Railroad Creek, and the smaller Copper Creek, which divides two of the massive piles. But largely, during this early attempt to repair the earth, there were a series of starts and stops that left no workable or long-term solution. “The project was always two years away but the problem was that for the last 15 years the project was two years away, so it wasn’t really moving from the Holden Village perspective,” Carpenter said. “There was contentious arguing at every point and every new plan that was issued was not effective.”

By 2007, Rio Tinto bought a company that had an interest in Holden Mine and as a condition of the deal, Rio Tinto assumed liability for the remediation at Copper Mountain. “I am proud to say once Rio Tinto got involved we were able to break that stalemate that was occurring for about 15 years,” Cline said. “We have been able to dislodge that process and move forward with the cleanup.”

In 2012, the Forest Service issued a record of decision on the remediation, approving a complex, sophisticated engineering and cleanup plan that is designed to permanently address risks from the tailings piles — including slope instability from earthquakes, inundation from 1,000-year floods — and put in permanent protections for both surface and groundwater. Cline, who works out of Rio Tinto’s Salt Lake City office, was asked to be the project manager for the Holden Mine site. ‘It’s only accessible by boat, we can only do the work from April to November, there are extremely high stream flows and rough terrain,” he said. “I worry about fires every day and we had to build a helicopter pad for emergency medical evacuations.”

At the time, roads could not withstand the heavy equipment, which could not be delivered on the ramp at Lucerne Landing because it wasn’t strong enough. Any supplies, once they could land, have to come 40 miles, and all day, by barge. He knew, too, that there was a sequestered, religious community just a creek away from the heart of the cleanup, and he wasn’t sure how that would mix with an extensive cleanup. Cline, who concedes he has a strong affinity for challenge, heartily agreed to take on Holden. “We entered into this with some trepidation, both Rio Tinto and Holden Village, when we started this, mixing a construction project with a religious retreat, but the results have been outstanding,” he added.

One village

Holden Village has also taken this atypical time of construction activity and decided to embark on its own projects of infrastructure repairs, putting in new water lines, completing some renovations of its own to get a facelift much like the mountain’s. “You have to break a few eggs to make an omelet,” one villager quipped. “You may have to tear everything up, but it will be put back together.” The Rio Tinto project involved rechanneling Copper Creek, and thus taking out the village’s source of hydropower, at least for now. Diesel generators are filling the gap.

Thousands of trees, including stately Englemann spruce, had to be felled to make room for the remediation. Some of those spruce were fashioned into the Holden Guitar by Taylor Guitar for a limited GS mini. Sales of those particular guitars support clean water and reforestation projects in Third World countries. Remnants of the other trees will be put into mulch, where possible, and used as part of the vegetative cover of the tailings piles.

The logging operation also took out the village’s spiritual labyrinth — an elaborately designed maze of sorts patterned after one of the most famous in the world at Chartres, France. But Chuck Carpenter notes that the labyrinth once replaced what had been the miners’ baseball field. “Things come and go here and the labyrinth was not here earlier and some of the earlier people really felt the loss of the ball park,” he said, adding with a smile, “And our new labyrinth has been used very well.”

The cleanup has also meant the demolition of the village museum. For now, its collectables are tucked away atop a walkway that looks down on pool tables and a jukebox. The quirkiness of the pool hall — there is a tournament trophy that is a toilet seat — abuts a 40s-era bowling alley used by the villagers today. Stephanie Carpenter said a village tradition that began early on is to take a photo of staff and compile it in big albums that chart the faces of those who come to this place, who arrive because they are called by God, or come because they are searching for absolution and answers from a divorce, a death, or some other life challenge. The workers’ pictures are being added to books, by tradition, because they are part of Holden Village now. Food preparers who were bestowed with tie-died aprons on their first day’s arrival will be among the history, as will those company executives who shed their pinstriped suits and wary faces after a few days among Holden-style laughter and song.

“We have this term — one village. It does not matter why you are here, but you are here,” she said. “Now we have a lot of people who are focused on the environmental cleanup project across the creek and they are staying in company town housing and that is a good thing, with a good vibe. It is really important for Holden Village to be part of this story.”

The people of the village feel the rumbles of the heavy equipment, see the dust that rises up in the air and watch how Railroad Creek is diverted and the contractors are putting in this engineering marvel called a barrier wall. Ultimately the 4,900-foot long semi-rigid, but low-permeable structure will channel contaminants that would enter the creek and divert them to a wastewater treatment plant that will make ground and surface water run pure from Copper Mountain’s mining legacy.

Much like the people of the village, the contractors take the knowledge their profession bestows on them and couple it with faith, trenching down as deep as 80 feet, digging somewhat blindly with a shovel on an 83-foot boom to provide the receptacle for the barrier. Marv Franson, from Wisconsin, has been coming to the self-contained village since 1967. He’s here this summer, giving his carpentry skills to the reformation of the buildings. “I am amazed at how much they have done, and I am so encouraged the mountain is going back to nature,” he said.

In a way, it is not contradictory that a spiritual retreat would occupy the same place and time as this monumental healing of a mountainside that is underway. “As for the remediation and how that impacts things, we are a Lutheran center. At the core of Lutheran theology is paradox and this idea of ‘both’ and not ‘either or,'” said Becky Lohrmann, the village’s interim pastor. “And so in a way we get to see that lived out here. The remediation has some different values and beliefs than we do, but is not either them or us, but both. And we get to see how it is to live together, even though we have our differences.”

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