Alaska asks EPA to intervene in mine contamination

An abandoned mercury mine presents a threat to Alaska Native villagers that has not been adequately addressed by the federal Bureau of Land Management, according to Alaska Attorney General Michael Geraghty. He's asking the Environmental Protection Agency to intervene.

BLM officials on Friday said they're following federal environmental law for the cleanup of the Red Devil Mine 255 miles west of Anchorage.

However, in a letter this month to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, Geraghty said Alaska since 1988 has tried working with federal land managers to properly investigate and clean up the abandoned mercury mine in the Kuskokwim River, the nation's ninth largest by discharge at its mouth in the Bering Sea.

"Despite Alaska's repeated requests, neither a thorough investigation of the nature and extent of the contamination nor an appropriate risk assessment to determine impacts on Alaska citizens have been completed," he wrote.

Residents of 24 Alaska Native villages downstream of the mine eat fish from the river, he said. Many are subsistence users and others catch them commercially or for recreation.

Geraghty asked Jackson to place the mine on the Superfund National Priorities List. The step would help ensure the federal government protects citizens by cleaning up soil, sediments and surface waters, he said.

Mike McCrum, BLM's Red Devil project manager, said federal Superfund law lays out the process his agency must follow, including an investigation to understand physical characteristics of the site, extent of contaminants and risk to humans. Likewise, cleanup alternatives must be screened by the EPA, state agencies and the public. The date to start additional cleanup is uncertain but not likely before 2014, he said

The mine operated from 1933 until 1971 and sent out 35,000 2.5-quart flasks of mercury that each weighed 76 pounds. Operators mined most below ground but eventually could not keep water out of shafts, McCrum said. During their final years, they mined nearby hillsides. The total area affected was about 20 acres.

Initial cleanup in 1987 removed processing chemicals and PCBs. BLM also backfilled open mine shafts. Fuel spilled from above-ground storage tanks was a target after 2003. However, the lingering effect of metals mining, including leaching from tailings, remains a concern. Flooded shafts allow groundwater to contact ore and host rock and enter surface water, the agency said on its website, and metals can accumulate in the food web.

Samples collected from game fish in the Kuskokwim and tributaries showed elevated mercury concentrations. The study prompted state health officials to issue warnings for consuming northern pike and burbot for women of childbearing age and young children.

According to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services fact sheet, mercury at high levels can damage the brain and other organs. Young children and fetuses are more sensitive to mercury.

Women of child-bearing age who eat fish in the Middle Kuskokwim River area can submit hair samples for free state analysis of their bodies' mercury levels.

08/27/2012 - 6:26am