AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Now, to a tiny village here in the U.S. attempting to solve an environmental challenge. Nestled in the remote valley in Washington's Cascade Mountains, Holden Village is about to be flooded with hundreds of workers there to clean up the contaminated remains of an old copper mine.
Anna King, of the Northwest News Network, reports on what the cleanup will cost the town.
ANNA KING: To understand how hard it'll be going to clean up this copper mine, first, you have to understand how hard it is to get there. From Seattle, it's a three-hour drive east. Thenâ¦
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KING: ...a three-hour boat ride up Lake Chelan.
Norm Day, is the U.S. Forest Service manager heading the mine cleanup.
NORM DAY: Forest Service departing Lucerne for Holden Village.
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KING: He drives the last leg of the journey up 12-miles of heart-in-the-throat switchbacks. Around the final corner, Holden Village looks like one of those old-timey Christmas cards. Four steep peaks hug the valley. There are snow-dusted chalets, a tiny school, all built in 1937.
But just beyond this picturesque place, up Copper Mountain, Norm Day points out the problem - the leftovers from two decades of mining.
DAY: This water coming out of the mine has a lot of the heavy metals in it, and it's pretty, pretty contaminated water.
KING: At the mouth of the old mine, water flows out from underneath padlocked corrugated metal doors.
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DAY: You can see icicles there in the...
KING: That is one of the creepiest things I've ever seen.
There's about 60 miles of pitch black tunnel down there - half under water. All that rock was either reduced down into copper and other metals, or discarded as rust-colored dust and black slime. There are several 12-story piles of that toxic guck just outside the mine.
Water picks up heavy metals as it runs through these piles before heading into nearby Railroad Creek. It's bad for the things fish eat, and for the fish themselves. The plan is to build underground concrete barriers some down 80 feet to bedrock.
DAY: We're trying to create a bathtub effect here where we can collect all of the dirty water so to speak and then run it through a treatment process to clean the water up again.
KING: A massive company called Rio Tinto now owns the mine. Managers wouldn't speak on tape but did provide a written statement saying Rio Tinto didn't create this mess rather it inherited the clean up responsibilities through for a series of acquisitions. The current plan calls for about 100 million dollars but the clean up will cost more than just money.
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KING: After the mine closed in 1957 the camp became a Lutheran Retreat Center. The year round staff is about 16. The population swells to about 400 in the summers. For half a century vesper services, matins, bible studies and weaving classes have all been announced with the bell.
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KING: But new this fall is the addition of about 60 mine clean-up workers. Convoys of dump trucks and other heavy equipment roll through town where there once were just convoys of deer. Every piece of equipment has to be brought in by barge. Just as the traffic is alien to the village, village life is alien to truck driver Mina Barron.
MINA BARRON: I've never been that close to a deer without eating it, you know what I mean? Even the squirrels, it's just a peaceful feeling.
KING: But that peace will be interrupted even more in the coming years. By the spring of 2013 as many as 400 mine clean-up workers will arrive at Holden for a two year stint. There won't be room for both the workers and the retreat centers regular guests which raises concerns about Holden's survival. It will have to be mostly closed down during that time. Chuck and Stephanie Carpenter are the village's co-directors. Stephanie says Lutherans are hardy and they've got work projects of their own.
And she says there are many people around the world watching out for Holden.
STEPHANIE CARPENTER: Chuck and I and anyone who works here we're buoyed up by this huge, huge body of people who are paying attention to this little teeny village in the middle of the wilderness.
KING: Even now there's a careful truce between the villagers in tie-dye and crew members in bright orange vests. People in hand-knit caps looking for spiritual renewal mingle with wage earners and hard hats. Some of the workers can't wait to get on a plane back home after their three week rotations in town but others start to blend in. Stephanie Carpenter recalls when three mine clean-up managers arrived in pinstripes.
CARPENTER: And one day they come walking into the dining hall and they had gone to the tie-dye class and tie-dyed their pinstripe office shirts and they're like, oh, yeah we're going to wear them into the office on Monday morning.
KING: But Chuck says Holden life has lead to much more than just a change of clothing for some.
CHUCK CARPENTER: We have breakfast together, sometimes have a cup of coffee with someone and it's great listening to their stories and hearing their stories of discovering this place and discovering what it's doing in their lives.
KING: Holden Village is a place of renewal where people come to rest, reflect, and in some cases heal. Now the village believes despite the burden of clean up that nearby Copper Mountain and Railroad Creek deserve a time of rest and renewal as well. For NPR News I'm Anna King.
CORNISH: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.