EPA targets contaminated Alaska mines

Salt Chuck edges toward Superfund status; company to pay to clean up radioactive Bokan

Posted: Monday, July 20, 2009

An old mine on Prince of Wales Island will become Alaska's newest Superfund site, if the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has its way.

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Courtesy Of Steve Winker
Courtesy Of Steve Winker

The Salt Chuck mine is one of two big contaminated mine sites on Southeast Alaska's Prince of Wales Island that state and federal agencies have known about for years but are just now starting to make progress.

Salt Chuck miners dumped much of their tailings, or ground-up waste rock, right into the intertidal zone. Now people go clamming, crabbing, camping and hiking there. The clams and mussels have been found with unhealthy amounts of arsenic, vanadium and copper. In areas with especially high metal levels, there aren't many clams or mussels, according to a Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation database of contaminated sites.

This month, the U.S. Forest Service received $1.4 million from the stimulus package to clean up Salt Chuck.

And it got a little closer to Superfund status, as Gov. Sarah Palin's administration on Friday said it wouldn't object to listing it or Red Devil, an Interior mine, on the National Priorities List of contaminated sites.

The other site getting some attention this year is Bokan Mountain, 38 miles southwest of Ketchikan. The site of Alaska's only producing uranium mine, the Ross Adams open-pit and underground mine operated from 1957 to 1971. Recently a Canada company, Ucore Uranium Inc., has been drilling there to look for rare elements that are useful in modern technologies such as nuclear control rods, fuel cells, magnets and lasers.

At the same time, the Forest Service has posted signs in the area that warn passers-by that it's dangerously radioactive.

This year, more than three decades after it was last mined and 12 years since agencies identified it as an official problem, the Forest Service nailed down Newmont Exploration Ltd. as responsible for cleaning it up.

Agencies know the two sites are hazards. What they don't know is the full extent of the contamination. It's too early in the process at both sites for officials to know what the cleanups will entail or how much they will cost, though it's fair to assume costs will reach millions of dollars.

Don't eat the clams

Long before statehood, the Salt Chuck mine opened in 1906, when two deer hunters discovered a bluish-purple copper ore four miles from Thorne Bay. Over the years, it was mined for copper, gold, palladium and platinum. At one point, the Salt Chuck mine was the nation's largest supplier of palladium, according to a Forest Service field study. The major mining was finished by 1941, though prospecting and logging in the area continued. But by the mid-1970s, the mill building and ore bunkers had collapsed and rotted.

The federal government owns the upland site - it's Tongass National Forest land - but the state owns the intertidal zone full of contaminated tailings.

EPA needed Palin's concurrence to proceed with its Superfund listing process.

It wasn't certain what she would do until Friday, when DEC Commissioner Larry Hartig wrote the EPA.

Alaska says it's not responsible for the Salt Chuck cleanup because it inherited the mess at statehood.

And the miners or companies that made the mess are "dead or long gone," said Michael Wilcox, who is coordinating the cleanup for the Forest Service.

Alaska has eight sites on the National Priority List now.

Ken Marcy of the Seattle EPA office that proposed adding Salt Chuck explained the listing:

"You're on a list with the worst cleanup sites in the country. So if funding is there, it's going to get it. There's no guarantee, but it's about the best situation you could hope for the cleanup."

However, the cleanup also becomes long and complex, requiring lots of study of the dangers before tackling how best to fix them.

That's a good thing, according to DEC contaminated sites manager Anne Marie Palmieri, considering what's unknown. For instance, they know the mussels have metals in them. But are those toxic metals getting into other animals higher on the food chain, or other subsistence resources such as shrimp and geoducks? Is the arsenic inorganic or organic, as the toxicity differs for each? Which areas exactly are affected?

"There are a lot of questions," Palmieri said.

"We wouldn't be trying to propose this site to the NPL if we thought it could be handled by a removal," Marcy said, "removal" being a term for a simpler federal process.

Superfund listing isn't assured. The Forest Service's $1.4 million in stimulus money won't come close to cleaning up the whole thing, but it will help deal with some of the immediate safety hazards, such as the dilapidated old mill.

The mountain is hot

It's probably not a good idea to picnic at Bokan Mountain, where the Forest Service signs warn people not to camp, not to drink the water, and not to spend more than two hours a year there.

Michael Wilcox at the Forest Service, who is working on cleaning it up, called the signs "ludicrous" and said he's re-evaluating what to put on them.

"Anything less than five days is ridiculously conservative," he said.

Environmental consultants at this site will wear Level D low-level protective garb, basically coveralls and gloves, plus wristbands that measure the dose of radiation they're absorbing. (Level A is similar to wearing scuba gear on land.)

This doesn't mean Bokan is safe.

The area has 184,000 tons of waste rock with higher-than-normal levels of arsenic and lead. Discovery of the gamma radiation in 1955 is what prompted the mining there in the first place.

Radiation is inescapable on Earth and, at low levels, not a worry. But at high levels, cumulatively, it causes cancer. The radiation at Bokan is between two and 100 times greater than background levels. The shafts have carcinogenic radon gas at 50 to 125 times the upper limit of safe indoor exposure levels. The surface water is contaminated and heads into Kendrick Bay, a spawning delta for all four salmon species.

EPA tracks Bokan as a low-priority Superfund site, but isn't considering it for the National Priorities List like Salt Chuck.

This is because there is an obvious source of cash for the cleanup. Newmont has cooperated since the agency told the company it was legally responsible in March this year, according to Wilcox. Environmental contractor Tetra Tech has begun sampling the area and will return during the extra-low tides this month.

• Contact reporter Kate Golden at kate.golden@juneauempire.com.



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