Bangor Hydro Employee Newsletter
Volume 9, Issue 5
For the past two summers, my wife, son, and I have had the pleasure of tending trails on
Holbrook Island. Although hauling limbs and clearing blowdowns can be backbreaking, there
are few work places more beautiful. Earlier this spring, as I raked leaves from Captain Jesse
Holbrook’s (1742-1791) gravesite, my attention kept returning to a rocky hillock rising above
the treetops on Cape Rosier’s western shore. While interesting geological formations are
commonplace in Maine, this particular mound seemed more peculiar than most. What was it,
and how did it come about? Was it a stone outcropping left by melting glacier millennia
before, or was it a slag heap used to cap a defunct landfill now moldering beneath plastic
lining and gravel? Perhaps, an ancient pyramid of alien design lie buried, built by enslaved
natives and overseen by malevolent beings…? Though, the latter theory would have been
wicked cool, an answer not previously surmised was found after a brief Internet search.
Under a narrow bridge anchored with granite blocks, the sea surges into Goose Pond with
the rising tide. Kelp undulates in the currents of its reversing falls. When ebbing, the
headwaters of Marsh Creek flush fragrant mudflats where seabirds forage. Ringed by dark
spruce and salt grass meadow, this place conceals a clandestine history known to few
outside of Harborside Village.
Around 1860, a clam digger happened upon a sulfide deposit containing traces of zinc,
copper, lead, and even a sprinkling of silver. Over the next century, on-again-off-again mining
operations commenced. In 1968, Goose Pond was dammed and drained to make way for an
open pit mine. In its time, it was reputably the only intertidal heavy metal mine in the world.
Conveyed through a series of crushers, ore was pounded into fine sand. After which, the
aggregate was subjected to a process called Floatation where chemicals, including
dithiophosphate salt, aryl phophorodithioate, cyclohexanol, and cresol were added causing
the metal particles to rise in the froth. Once the foam was collected, dried, and cleaned, the
mineral composite was hauled away to a smelter for further processing. Chemical reagents
and rock residue was discharged into an 11-acre tailings pond, eventually held back by an 82-
foot berm. During its heyday, a dust cloud hovered above the mining area. I’m certain this
phenomenon was seen as a golden halo by local communities, who enjoyed some modicum
of economic prosperity, at least for a short while. In the end, 5,000,000 tons of rock and
250,000 tons of marine clay were excavated to harvest 800,000 tons of ore. The tidal estuary’s
southern fringe was transformed into massive waste rock piles, the highest of which became
known as Callahan Mountain.
When operations ceased in 1972, the dam was breached, immersing a cavernous hole that
measured 600 feet wide and 320 feet deep. Presumably, the area’s bucolic coastal setting
would be restored. Perhaps, nature would reclaim this 120-acre parcel, or stately summer
homes would suddenly appear taking advantage of enviable views. Alas, neither prospect
was ever realized. Instead, a toxic fertilizer of arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead, and zinc
permeated forest and lawn, byproducts of grandfathered mining practices and the belated
awakening of environmental consciousness.
During ensuing years, many soil samples were tested, and many studies were completed
until an official determination was rendered. Conditions posed an unacceptable threat to the
environment and human health, particularly children. Evidently, a commonsense conclusion
can only come about after much time, effort, and money has been expended. Anyhow, in
2002, the former Callahan Copper Mine was designated a Superfund site by the
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Actual cleanup activities will commence sometime in
2012-2014, costing taxpayers more than twenty million dollars. Apparently, past owners won’t
be footing the bill for this project. In summary, Goose Pond will be drained once again. The
mine pit will be plugged with contaminated materials, soils, and sediments excavated and
dredged from target areas. Polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) contaminates will be trucked
offsite and disposed of. The tailings containment berm will be reinforced and the pond
capped. Finally, the pit will be topped with clean fill and resubmerged. In the end, per the
wishes of local citizenry, the scenic vista atop Callahan Mountain will remain intact for those
unafraid to venture near.
Recently, my family and I investigated for ourselves. Except for a sound of tire tread on the
gravel access road, it was silent inside our stealthy Prius. We passed three modest houses.
Shuttered and dormant during the winter, buildings and lawns had an appearance of
seasonal residence. Not dissuaded by chain-link fence and signage, we continued through
an open gate, which only whetted our curiosity. No doubt, this was once a bustling locale
where heavy machinery revved and clattered. Thick steel cables lie coiled and rusted, metal
things were scattered haphazard, a bulky door hung ajar on a cinder block structure adorned
with graffiti. Our car crawled over a latticework of paths with ease though jagged stones
threatened to stab.
On the far side, we discovered the tailings pond. Blades of reed grass grew thick in the
middle though little water was present. Fine, ashen sand rippled across the pond bottom,
disturbed by ATV tracks riding roughshod. Known as the dunes by locals, children are warned
not to play there. A precipitous drop to our right causes my wife worry. However, she cannot
avert her gaze from a snowy egret hunting in the shallows. Soon, an odd plateau came into
view, its eastern slope eroded and rust-colored. The strange contours of Waste Rock Pile 3
(WRP-3) are recognized. Flanked by pond and rockpile, a gulley blocked our path. A brand
new culvert provided unimpeded flow for runoff and melt from the tailings above. A great blue
heron took flight from the salt marsh below.
We backtracked and sought another course to Callahan Mountain. Reaching the summit, a
watery expanse was revealed, possibly the most picturesque view on Cape Rosier.
Countless islands dotted Penobscot Bay, including Islesboro and Vinalhaven. In the
distance, Camden Hills climbed the horizon. Lush green forest delineated blue sea and sky.
However, surrounding me was an odd backdrop of fractured rock and ledge, newly born, void
of lichen and moss. Although, an occasional spruce and birch found purchase in the
hardscrabble, it was seemingly lifeless. Besides the barren topography, the most striking
feature was a yellowish pall that swathed the landscape. Presumably, exposure to sun and
elements has caused mineralized rock fragments to oxidize. Depending on individual
perspective, one could envision a lovely hue while others might see a sickly shade indicative
of ill environs, or if you’re a fan of Ray Bradbury like me, you could easily imagine a Martian
Navigating Cape Rosier is tricky as is, but locating the site via a narrow, dirt lane called Back
Road is definitely a challenge. Anyhow, I won’t bother offering directions. Instead, I’ll refer you
to Delorme’s Maine Atlas Map 15 where you can look for Goose Falls, about a thumbnail
width below Castine. From there, take the first turnoff on the left, also unpaved. So, if you ever
find yourself in Harborside Village, feel free to explore the former copper mine site. Just
remember to pack hazmat suits and facemasks for the kids, refrain from fishing, clam
digging, and swimming. Heck, just don’t touch anything, don’t take deep breaths, and don’t
linger. Lastly, take a long bath or shower when you get home. Better yet, bathe twice.
United States Environmental Protection Agency
|Callahan Copper Mine
|Maine Travels by John R. Cobb
from Stink Cove
|Looking north from atop
|Snowy Egret Feeding