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Alaska seeks cleanup of mercury mine threatening villages

Alex DeMarban
BLM photo

The state is pressing the federal government to clean up an abandoned mercury mine in a remote section of Southwest Alaska that is oozing toxins into a river where hundreds of families fish for food and money.

The federal government owns the defunct mine site near the middle Kuskokwim River, but the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has been slow to clean it up, the state argues. Only now is the full extent of the damage becoming known.

The Red Devil mine 250 miles west of Anchorage was once one of the nation's largest mercury mines. Operating for decades when there were few to no environmental rules for containing waste rock, it was by far the biggest mine in the highly mineralized region, known as the cinnabar belt because of the scarlet, cinnabar veins in the mountains.

Recent sediment tests at the site have found levels of arsenic and mercury more than 100 times federal screening levels, state regulators say.

Last fall, a different study concluded that the Red Devil mine, as well as other abandoned mines in the region, were leading to higher-than-normal levels of mercury in fish. For the first time, the state issued guidelines warning families in the area not to eat too much pike and lush fish.

The pollution is so extensive that Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell, who has clashed with the Environmental Protection Agency over its efforts to study the proposed Pebble copper and gold mine, now wants its help. The Pebble mine in Bristol Bay, it's important to note, would operate under much stricter state and federal rules than those in place during the heyday of mercury mining on the Kuskokwim.

Parnell directed his attorney general, Michael Geraghty, to ask the agency to place the 10-acre Red Devil site on its Superfund national priorities list, Geraghty said in a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson sent earlier this month. It's only the second such request the state has made. The EPA designation would place the former mine on the nation's list of most hazardous sites, helping ensure that it gets properly cleaned up, Geraghty said.

It would also give the EPA the final say on the cleanup, something that's currently not happening.

In the Alaska tradition of federal-government bashing, Geraghty slammed the BLM in his letter to the EPA. For nearly a quarter-century, the state has tried to get the BLM to properly assess pollution and health risks from Red Devil. But the agency has failed to do so, he writes.

The federal government owns about two-thirds of Alaska, and the BLM manages much of it, including the shuttered mine. The BLM is also in U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski's sights for not cleaning up and removing dozens of abandoned oil wells in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

The BLM, Geraghty wrote to Jackson, "has been unwilling to consider state comments and recommendations" and has not fulfilled "its responsibility on behalf of the federal government to properly assess and mitigate impacts" from Red Devil.

At risk may be some two dozen Alaska Native communities, including the village of Red Devil less than two miles away, that depend on the river for subsistence and commercial fishing, Geraghty wrote.

The EPA has received the state's letter and is reviewing options, said EPA spokesman Mark McIntyre.

BLM studying the problem

BLM officials have opposed giving up control of the investigation to the EPA, state regulators say. BLM officials refused to talk with Alaska Dispatch for an on-the-record interview, saying it was a very busy time. But the agency did respond to a written list of questions, and one official spoke anonymously.

They claim they're taking the proper steps required under federal cleanup laws, following the same Superfund process the EPA would take. They said they're working closely with the state and the EPA, and both have had a significant impact on the timing of the investigation.

BLM officials have held several village meetings in the region and have done some cleanup, according to the agency's website. That includes in 2002 smashing and burying buildings atop a large sheet of Hypalon, the same materials used in whitewater rafts. Chemicals were used to bind metals into equipment that was once used to extract the mercury, to reduce the threat of releases.  Workers also cleaned oil-soaked soil at the old tank farm from 2003 to 2006. In recent years, they've tested levels of pollution in soil and elsewhere and have launched a study of pollution in local fish. 

State environmental regulators say it's not enough. They fear that burying the debris was a mistake because the thick plastic liner it's wrapped in will eventually erode. The Kuskokwim Corp., a consortium of 10 Alaska Native village corporations in the region, also worries that the BLM's past cleanup efforts will lead to more pollution.

The BLM's work may have "exacerbated" pollution at the site, as contaminated materials were stockpiled and disposed of on areas of the site that had not been adequately studied, said Kuskokwim Corp. chief executive Maver Carey in a letter to the EPA last summer. The Native corporation also wants the EPA to list Red Devil as a Superfund site.

Fish tissue high in mercury

Red Devil stretches along its namesake creek in the Kuskokwim Mountains, overlooking the Kuskokwim River that's about a quarter-mile away. Starting in the Great Depression era, a variety of companies produced 2.75 million pounds of liquid mercury. The mine shut down in 1971 -- just months after the EPA was born -- as demand for quicksilver fell because of its toxicity.

Operators used the ground-up waste rock as building material across the site. They leveled the ground to support foundations for buildings. They used it for roads. The waste rock even piled up on the edge of the Kuskokwim, at a man-made delta where supply barges could land. What wasn't used for building materials was pushed into piles, state regulators say.

Today, photos show an old heap of waste rock that, state officials say, forms a 30-foot-tall bank along the edge of the creek. Years ago, BLM estimated the site contained 50,000 cubic yards of tailings, or about 5,000 dump truck loads, state regulators said.

Asked if that is accurate, BLM's email to Alaska Dispatch said the agency plans to determine the volume of material to be cleaned as part of its evaluation. "It is clear from site observation that there is a substantial volume of tailings on the site," the email said.      

Inside the ground rock are carcinogen-causing arsenic and mercury, which leads to neurological disorders, especially in babies. Tests have also found huge levels of antimony at the site, a chemical regulated by the EPA in drinking water because it can increase cholesterol and decrease blood sugar. Lead is also a concern, the BLM has said.

It's not just soil and sediment that's polluted, state officials say. Surface water where the Red Devil meets the Kuskokwim, the state's second-largest river, showed levels of mercury, antimony and arsenic that were about 10 times higher than state water quality standards. Those are based on BLM tests.

BLM's email said the concentrations of mercury, arsenic and antimony at Red Devil mine reflect what was naturally there. The difference is that some of the mercury has been removed.

The agency's answer sidesteps the more serious issue, said Jennifer Roberts, head of the state's contaminated sites program for federal facilities. The original rock has been excavated, then ground into powder and gravel, making it more available to be absorbed into the food chain by fish and humans, she said.

"It's gone through an industrial process. That's why everyone is so careful about how they permit mines now," Roberts said.  

Runoff contributing to mercury levels in fish

For years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been assessing mercury in fish from tributaries in the state's federal refuges.

Though the Red Devil Creek sits about 50 miles from the nearest refuge, the BLM asked the agency to assess pollution in fish tissue in the creek and nearby areas, said Angela Matz, a wildlife toxicologist with USFWS.

The results of that study were released last fall. It found that pollution from the mine has likely led to higher mercury concentrations in snails, damsel fly larvae and other bottom-dwelling macroinvertebrates. It also found high levels of mercury in small fish called slimy sculpin and in juvenile Dolly Varden trout, a fish eaten by locals.

Larger subsistence fish, such as pike and lush, also called burbot, can ingest mercury by eating those smaller animals. The results released last fall were less conclusive for those larger fish, which are generally too big to enter Red Devil Creek. But there were other trouble spots.

The study found that pike, lush and Arctic grayling from the George River, located downriver from the creek, had some of the highest concentrations. Contributing to the levels could be two small abandoned mercury mines and naturally-occurring cinnabar deposits along that river.  

Because mercury most commonly threatens young children and fetuses, preliminary results from the study caused the state to create the first-ever guidelines on how much pike and lush from the area that children 15 and under and women of child-bearing age should eat. The guidelines are strictest for pike from the George River -- just four meals per month. The guidelines say that other people, such as men or older women, can safely eat unlimited amounts of pike and lush.

Matz praised BLM for holding village meetings in the region to explain the findings last fall and at meetings she attended this spring. She said the fish-tissue study is also expanding to include more creeks and more types of fish in the region.

One of BLM's messages at the meetings was that young women and children should seek alternatives to eating large pike, a top-of-the-food-chain fish. A better choice would be eating Alaska's oceangoing wild salmon, which are some of the cleanest salmon in the world, Matz said.

The warning about large pike was worrisome to villagers, because pike is such a common subsistence food, said Carey, head of the Kuskokwim Corp.

"We're like, 'What?! You need to clean this up, now," Carey said.  

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com

(Correction: This article originally paraphrased Angela Matz as saying Alaska salmon are some of the cleanest fish in the world. The wording has been changed to note that Alaska salmon are some of the cleanest salmon in the world.)