The Red Devil Mine, which produced mercury on and off from the 1930s to 1971, is seen from the air in 1960 in this archival photo from the University of Alaska Anchorage’s collection. The Bureau of Land Management has approved a plan to clean up what is considered the last remaining source of contamination: tailings spread over the property. (Photo by Don Grybeck/University of Alaska Anchorage Consortium Library archives and special collections)

The Red Devil Mine, which produced mercury on and off from the 1930s to 1971, is seen from the air in 1960 in this archival photo from the University of Alaska Anchorage’s collection. The Bureau of Land Management has approved a plan to clean up what is considered the last remaining source of contamination: tailings spread over the property. (Photo by Don Grybeck/University of Alaska Anchorage Consortium Library archives and special collections)

Federal regulators approve long-term plan for cleaning site of Alaska mercury mine

Nearly a century after a Western Alaska mine began producing mercury, cleanup of the site is entering a final but long-term phase.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management on Wednesday issued a document known as a record of decision approving a long-term remediation plan for the Red Devil Mine, a onetime mercury producer that contaminated the Kuskokwim River region for decades.

The mine, located about 250 miles west of Anchorage and 160 miles northeast of Bethel, produced mercury from 1933 to 1946, and then sporadically between 1952 and 1971. Over the years, mine operators used tailings – the waste rock from mining operations – as fill material, and those tailings contained toxic mercury, arsenic and antimony.

The mine site is on land managed by the BLM, giving that agency the lead authority for cleanup and reclamation under federal law.

“This signed decision on Red Devil Mine marks a major step forward for addressing contamination at this site,” Steve Cohn, the BLM’s Alaska state director, said in a statement. “We look forward to working with Tribes, Alaska Native Corporations, the State, and others to implement this plan to the benefit of the lands and communities.”

Cleanup work at Red Devil started in the 1990s, said Gordon Claggett, a BLM spokesperson. Previous work focused on the mine’s buildings, he said. The newly approved plan addresses what is considered the last source of environmental risk at the site: the high-concentration tailings.

The plan approved by the BLM includes evacuation of contaminated materials from Red Devil Creek and downstream areas of the Kuskokwim River, consolidation and safe storage of evacuated materials, long-term maintenance of that storage facility and long-term monitoring of groundwater and river sediments.

The total cost for capital needs and operations is about $40 million, according to the BLM’s decision. The money is to be provided by the federal government, Claggett said.

It is assumed that the work will last for 30 years, with periodic analysis to look for any possible problems, he said. The BLM will share its long-term monitoring data with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation “and will formally review the data every five years, specifically to evaluate the effectiveness of this remediation plan. If the data indicates that further action is needed, we will take action,” he said by email.

The Department of Environmental Conservation has been an important player in the long-term Red Devil cleanup since 1990, said Kelly Rawalt, a department spokesperson.

“DEC has worked with the BLM and has reviewed the investigation and feasibility study, proposed alternatives, and the draft Record of Decision, as well as participated in community outreach efforts,” she said by email. “DEC will review the final Record of Decision and will continue to be involved in the cleanup plan, long term monitoring plans, construction and monitoring of the repository, and periodic reviews through the life of the project.”

Also involved in an indirect way has been the Alaska Division of Public Health, which has an ongoing program allowing Alaskans to monitor their own mercury exposure. Through that program, Alaskans can send hair samples to be analyzed for mercury content. The division operated a special project to evaluate the risks of mercury exposure from consumption of northern pike in certain rural sites, including the Kuskokwim River area that includes the Red Devil Mine. The project, conducted with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, resulted in some advisories for consumption of northern pike in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region and elsewhere. Northern pike are considered to be vulnerable to mercury contamination because they are long-lived and can thus accumulate the metal over several years.

Mercury exposure is dangerous for people and can cause brain and nerve damage, especially among children, among other maladies.

Human use of mercury dates to antiquity, as do signs of mercury poisoning. A recent discovery of human bones as old as 5,000 years at a vineyard in Portugal revealed some high levels of mercury, particularly among those dating back to the early Copper Age. In the early 1800s, at a time when hatmakers commonly used mercury to cure felt, the noticeable effects on their health resulted in the coining of the term “mad as a hatter.”

Potential mercury contamination of Kuskokwim River fish has been a concern over the years of the Red Devil cleanup. A BLM study that examined mercury levels in fish and insects collected from 2010 to 2014 at Red Devil Creek and the Kuskokwim River turned up mixed results.

The Red Devil Mine site is located along what is referred to as Alaska’s “mercury belt,” a string of naturally occurring mercury deposits extending about 500 kilometers (300 miles) along the Kuskokwim River.

More in News

(Juneau Empire file photo)
Aurora forecast for the week of April 8

These forecasts are courtesy of the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute… Continue reading

Juneau Assembly members and other visitors examine a meeting room formerly used by the nine-member Alaska State Board of Education and Early Development on Monday, April 8, which is about 25% larger than the Assembly Chambers at City Hall. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Of three possible new City Hall buildings, one stands out — but plenty of proposed uses for other two

Michael J. Burns Building eyed as city HQ; childcare, animal shelter among options at school sites.

Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, speaks to members of the Senate majority caucus’ leadership group on Friday. (James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
Schools, university and projects across Alaska are set to receive money from new budget bill

Alaska Senate sends draft capital budget to House as work continues on a state spending plan

The Boney Courthouse in downtown Anchorage, across the street from the larger Nesbett Courthouse, holds the Alaska Supreme Court chambers. (Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
Alaska judge strikes down state’s cash payments to families using correspondence school programs

Decision will become a ‘hot-button legislative item’ in final weeks of session, lawmakers say.

A statue of William Henry Seward stands outside the Dimond Courthouse in downtown Juneau. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire file photo)
Juneau man convicted of sexual abuse of 15-year-old girl more than four years after incidents occur

JPD: Randy James Willard, 39, sent explicit videos to and engaged in sexual contact with victim.

Capital Transit buses stop at the Valley Transit Center on Thursday. Two bus routes serving areas of the Mendenhall Valley and near the airport will temporarily be discontinued starting April 22 due to lack of staff. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Capital Transit temporarily suspending two Mendenhall Valley routes due to shortage of drivers

Officials hope to fix situation by July; extra tourist buses also scaled back due to fleet shortage.

A fenced lot proposed as a campsite for people experiencing homelessness located next to the city’s cold weather emergency shelter, in the background, is also next door to a businesses where extensive construction is scheduled, thus prompting city leaders to rethink the proposal. (Photo by Laurie Craig)
Indefinite ‘dispersed camping’ for homeless proposed by city leaders due to lack of suitable campsite

Proposed Rock Dump site is next to long-term construction, more costly than expected, report states.

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Wednesday, April 10, 2024

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, watches as the tally board in the Alaska House of Representatives shows the vote against House Joint Resolution 7 on Thursday. Eastman supported the amendment. (James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
Alaska House votes down constitutional guarantee for Permanent Fund dividend

Guarantee had been discussed as part of long-term plan to bring state expenses in line with revenue.

Most Read