‘This is their shot’: BLM asks community for input on mercury mine clean-up plans

A liner covers the mine tailings left over from the Red Devil mercury mine near the village of Red Devil. ( Katie Basile/KYUK)

The Red Devil mercury mine used to be the largest in the state. But once it was no longer profitable, the owners walked away, leaving behind a toxic mess for someone else to clean up.

There’s a sign at the entrance of what used to be the mine: “Red Devil Mine, U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Land Management. DANGER. Material at mine site may present human health risks.”

After the mine shut down in 1971, it was discovered that the mine tailings were leaching into Red Devil Creek, a tributary of the Kuskokwim River, as well as the surrounding groundwater. Those tailings are made up of mercury, which can cause neurological damage, especially to unborn babies. The tailings also contain arsenic and antimony, which can cause cancer.

Read our series on the people and environmental issues surrounding Red Devil

The federal Bureau of Land Management took on the responsibility of cleaning up the mine in 1987, more than a decade after the owners walked away. Now, almost 40 years later, BLM has finally proposed a plan to remediate the site.

There are four alternatives in the plan, but BLM has a preferred option: first they will dig up contaminated soil by the mine site, less than a mile down the Kuskokwim River. Then they will cover the tailings about 300 feet above Red Devil Creek with layers of dirt and fabric that will keep the tailings from leaking out. One of these layers is called a geo-membrane.

“That’s essentially no permeability, but we call it low permeability,” said Mike McCrum, the project manager. “It’s very effective preventing rainfall and snowmelt getting into the main contents of the repository.”

The bottom will not be lined, but McCrum says that BLM is assuring that the proposed design would help prevent the tailings from leaking into Red Devil creek and the groundwater.

“This is a standard design. EPA [The Environmental Protection Agency] has designed repositories like this for all over the Pacific Northwest, and really all over the country,” McCrum said.

But the design is not final. That’s where community input comes in.

“This is the first time that these communities have a chance to go on record on their thoughts and their ideas for this proposed cleanup plan,” McCrum said.

BLM has held information meetings for years in surrounding communities, but this is the first official public comment period on the clean-up.

“If there is one message that we would like to get out at this point, it’s ‘this is their shot’,” McCrum said.

Rebecca Wilmarth grew up playing on the abandoned mine. She plans to attend the public hearing in the village of Red Devil next month.

“I think there are a lot of people who are going to question their plan, but like I said, I’ll wait to see what they have to say,” Wilmarth said.

The public comment period opens up March 1 and ends on April 30. McCrum says that they hope for a final record of decision in 2021 at the earliest.

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