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BLM holds Red Devil Mine update meeting


In spring 2012, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) met with and is still currently meeting with a number of communities along the middle and lower Kuskokwim River to discuss the Red Devil Mine Remedial Investigation report and risk assessment. Of most concern regarding the old Red Devil mine is contamination from the mine metals mercury, arsenic and antimony.

The Red Devil Mine is an old abandoned cinnabar mine and mercury production facility that has been the subject of a number of major environmental restoration and clean up projects. It is located on the south bank of the Kuskokwim River, approximately 1.5 miles upstream from the village of Red Devil and approximately 8 miles downstream from Sleetmute. The mine is accessed from the Kuskokwim River or by aircraft via the Red Devil airstrip.

The mine was operational from 1939 to 1971 and was the largest underground and surface cinnabar mine in Alaska yielding approximately 35,000 2.5-quart flasks (76 lbs. per flask) of mercury. Operating under antiquated 1872 mining laws, mine operators conducted extensive underground and surface mining, and disposed of mine tailings and processing wastes at the site.

The BLM has been working on clean up since 1989. Initial clean up efforts focused on removing the remaining processing chemicals, PCBs in transformers, and backfilling open mine shafts and adits (mine openings leading underground). In 2002, the derelict mine buildings and mercury production facilities were demolished and disposed in on-site one-time use landfills.

Then from 2003 through 2006, BLM focused available funding on cleanup of spilled fuel from the mine’s large above ground storage tanks. With funds provided under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the petroleum cleanup advanced into final stages during 2009-2010.

The Bethel community Red Devil Mine outreach meeting was conducted on April 17, 2012. Approximately 20 people attended the meeting, which included representatives from the Kuskokwim Watershed Council and various community members.

“It is really important that you all have an active voice and an active understanding of what we’re doing out here,” said Jim Fancher, BLM Anchorage Field Manager. “That has been a very important part of this community outreach.”

The purpose of the Remedial Investigation and Feasibility Study is to better understand the physical setting and potential impacts of the mine tailings (the leftover material after ore is processed), determine what potential risks the mine may have on human health and the environment, and what can be done to address those risks.

“The main point within the context of this process of doing this risk assessment is to help us decide whether we should be cleaning this site up or not,” said Mike McCrum, BLM’s Red Devil Mine Project Manager.

Field data on soil, groundwater, surface water and sediment were collected in August and September 2011. Three main areas of the mine were tested – the surface mine area, the main processing area, and the alluvial area (the creek or river soil sedimentary deposits).

Most of the main processing area, both surface and subsurface, showed arsenic and mercury concentrations, as did the groundwater underneath the main processing area.

The samples also taken from the alluvial area showed the presence of arsenic and mercury.

Several people at the meeting voiced concern about the number of people who died from cancer in the nearby communities of Red Devil and Sleetmute, i.e. a teacher who lived in Sleetmute for 2 years who got tumors all over their body, three people dying of cancer in one family in Sleetmute, and if any hair from pregnant women from that area were tested for mercury, and just the lack of information on cancer statistics.

“The issue really is we need to get that information,” said Don Wedll who was in the audience. “Statistically in that small community, that is astronomically high. We can’t downplay the issue.”

The state keeps a registry of all cancer deaths in Alaska since 1992, said Nim Ha of the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, but the challenge is is that Red Devil has such a small population, people move, and therefore it is difficult to count or estimate the deaths from cancer. But, she said, she would pass on the request to the state.

A fish tissue sampling study was also conducted as part of the risk assessment feasibility study (RI/FS). The RI/FS is a Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) process to determine what risks the site may pose for human health and the environment and what can be done to address those risks. The fish tissue sampling study was to evaluate methylmercury levels in northern pike, burbot, arctic grayling and whitefish along 118 miles of the Kuskokwim River and its tributaries in the area.

BLM will also present the results of an ongoing fish tissue and radio telemetry study that will provide information about basin-wide levels of mercury and other metals in pike, burbot and other predatory fish. This data will also inform the Red Devil Mine Feasibility Study, to be released in late 2012. The Proposed Plan is scheduled for release in March 2013.

The lands encompassing the Red Devil Mine are selected for conveyance to The Kuskokwim Corporation (surface estate) and the Calista Corporation (subsurface estate) as part of the Sleetmute Village Townsite selection under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. BLM administers the lands and will be able to convey them after remediation is completed.

BLM will be holding community meetings in Tuluksak, Lower Kalskag, and Upper Kalskag this week. The BLM is open to scheduling meetings with communities to discuss the Red Devil Mine investigation.

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