BLM discusses Red Devil Mine cleanup
Bureau of Land Management
Bureau of Land Management workers collect fish samples at Red Devil Creek.
This summer, the Bureau of Land Management is hoping to start some preliminary cleaning of the Red Devil Mine, before they enact their long term plan.
More specifically, BLM officials said that the Red Devil Creek is running through tailings (piles of mining rocks that have had the valuables extracted from them), causing mercury, arsenic and antimony to pollute the water. At a community meeting in Bethel on Feb. 26, BLM officials said that the polluted water is moving into the Kuskokwim River and is showing up in fish in the creek.
"That's a condition we thought deserves some action earlier than what the site action would be," said Mike McCrum, Red Devil project manager. "The data shows up we have an issue here. ... What we want to do is put something in the creek to prevent this stuff from going down the river."
The Red Devil Mine, when it operated between 1933 and 1971, was once one of the largest cinnabar and mercury producing mines in the U.S. Now, the Bureau of Land Management and other government agencies are looking at how to clean up the mess left behind.
The Red Devil Mine is located on the Kuskokwim River, 1.5 miles upstream from the village of Red Devil.
Currently there are three options to prevent the tailings from further polluting the water.
The first option is to line the section of Red Devil Creek near the tailings piles with a concrete cloth. This would provide a barrier between the creek and the tailings and prevent the water from undercutting the tailings.
The second option is to dig a new channel and install a culvert pipe for the water to go through, which would prevent active erosion.
The third and BLM's preferred option is a bit more complicated. They would move the pilings back away from the shore and pin it down with longlasting material. They would then dig and reline the channel, making it straighter, and put gabeons stacked three or four high on either side to prevent erosion. (Gabeons are plastic boxes filled with clean rocks.) They would then excavate a U-shaped area down by the bridge, inside the entrance of the Kuskokwim River, and create a four-foot high pool of sorts with more gabeons and lining. This would let the metal pollutants (antimony, arsenic, mercury) settle down before the water flows over the top of the gabeon barrier. This pool is overdesigned for the summer and should still be enough to handle the spring breakup, McCrum said.
Each option is similar in cost. The first costs $2.1 million, the second costs $2.11 million and the third costs $2.14 million.
BLM says the third option is the most attractive because it is the most effective in preventing tailings and is still relatively easy to construct.
A fourth option. McCrum said, is to do nothing at all. That's not something BLM is considering, McCrum said.
A fish tissue study showed that there are high levels of antimony in fish in Red Devil Creek compared to other areas, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Toxicologist Angela Matz. While she said it's rare for people to have dangerous levels of mercury, people can get free testings through the Alaska Department of Public Health. She said that the only people who should be careful about how much fish they eat are pregnant women and young children.
In order to avoid the pollutants, though, there is a simple solution.
"The answer is switch it up," Matz said. "It's not going to kill your baby if you have a can of tuna, for sure ... (but) our Alaska wild salmon have the lowest concentrates of mercury of salmon anywhere in the world. If you want to mix it up, eat lots of salmon."
Bureau of Land Management
The first mining buildings of Red Devil Mine in the 1940s.
At the Bethel community meeting, which was attended by several tribal members, there were several questions asked about the specifics of the cleanup and about how polluted the fish were. At the end of the presentation, there was an impassioned speech given by 92-year-old David Trantham, a longtime Bethelite and a regular speaker at community meetings.
"It would be my wish, and probably the wish of many people in this area, that we can turn this into a learning situation, so future mines cannot walk away and leave us a mess for our grandchildren and great grandchildren," he said.
The Bureau of Land Management has held community meetings all around the Yukon Kuskokwim region in the past month. The last meeting will be held at Crooked Creek Tribal Office on Tuesday, March 18. Community members may be able to comment on the early action plan by March 21 by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.