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Red Devil Mine mercury investigation, remediation are on course

Bud C. Cribley
BLM photo

In the past several months we have seen heightened media and public interest in the environmental investigation at the Red Devil Mine site, a former mercury mine near the middle Kuskokwim River. I would like to share an update about the project with you.

The mercury mine at Red Devil operated from 1933 until 1971 under the 1872 Mining Law. The companies that operated the mine went out of business and abandoned the mine. The Red Devil Mine is one of several mines that operated in the Kuskokwim watershed over the last century, prior to the Bureau of Land Management’s authority to approve mining operations on public land.

Because the former mine site is located on federal public lands, the BLM has regulatory authority for remediation of the site. From 1987 through 2008, we focused our cleanup efforts on removing hazardous materials and buildings the miners left on the site that posed potential chemical and physical hazards. In 2009, we began a thorough investigation of the Red Devil mine site, following BLM’s regulatory authority under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA). We are now in the final stages of investigating the mine site, and our results show a potential risk to humans and the environment at the site from high levels of contaminants left behind by past mining activities. We will use these investigation results to assess remediation options.

In addition to investigating the mine site, we are working with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to evaluate contaminants in fish in the middle section of the Kuskokwim River from McGrath to Aniak, both above and below the Red Devil Mine. On Dec. 20, the BLM released an interim report that summarizes metals concentrations in fish tissue collected in 2010 and 2011, and our analysis of those results (available online: http://www.blm.gov/ak/fisheries/rdm_fish.html). This study found the greatest concentrations of mercury in pike are associated with the George and Holitna Rivers, two major tributaries of the Kuskokwim River but outside the influence of the Red Devil Mine. The results suggest that many natural mercury deposits and historic mine sites are adding mercury to the Kuskokwim watershed. We are planning to present results from this fish study in February at the Alaska Forum on the Environment.

We feel strongly that the involvement of everyone -- especially communities and tribes -- is critical to the investigation at the Red Devil Mine. During this investigation, we are also drawing on the expertise of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Alaska Division of Health and Social Services, and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

Over the past three years, we’ve shared our investigation plans and study results in more than 30 community meetings and tribal consultations. When we visited and talked with local communities, we also listened. We know the best remediation plan is one that blends science, safety and traditional knowledge.

We will continue to work with communities, Tribes, and agencies to develop the remediation plan. We appreciate the agency representatives who assist us and look forward to more joint work and progress as we continue to move forward. We are planning to release the final remedial investigation report in spring of 2013 and the feasibility study report in the fall. Following these reports, we’ll consult with affected tribes and Alaska Native corporations and meet with interested communities, the state, and the EPA to mutually discuss cleanup options as this project transitions from an investigation to the site remediation.

Meanwhile, you can find out more at our Red Devil Mine project website or email your thoughts, questions, and concerns to blm_ak_reddevil(at)blm.gov.

Environmental investigation and cleanup is not a quick process. We’re taking the time necessary to do a thorough job while involving all stakeholders to turn around what took decades to create. As you can see by the work we’ve completed and are committed to continue, the Red Devil Mine remediation is on course. Thank you for caring about our public lands and what happens at the Red Devil Mine.

Bud C. Cribley is the Alaska state director for the U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.