Mojave River Basin Decision
by Sue McClurg
With drainage water described as “more caustic than battery acid,” how
to clean up Iron Mountain Mine – and who should foot the bill – has long
been a major pollution remediation problem. For decades, rain runoff from
the mine, located near Redding, caused heavy metals to spill into creeks and
waterways and on into the Sacramento River, killing salmon and other aquatic
life far downstream.
The mine, a fractured 4,000-acre mountain that once yielded copper, zinc,
gold, silver and the mineral pyrite, used to produce sulfuric acid, was
declared a federal Superfund site in 1983 – some 20 years after it closed.
A treatment plant in operation at the site since 1994 is credited with
removing more than 5 million pounds of heavy metals, including copper,
cadmium and zinc, that would otherwise have flowed down Spring Creek and
into the Sacramento River. (Lime is used to neutralize the runoff.) But the
treatment does not come cheap; the plant costs about $5 million a year to
operate. Nor does the Spring Creek Debris Dam/treatment system capture all
the drainage that leaches into other creeks around the mine.
These acidic discharges will be further reduced thanks to an innovative
settlement reached by governmental agencies and the company that now owns
the mine, Aventis CropScience USA Inc. Terms of the public-private
partnership were released in October, ending nine years of litigation and
three years of settlement negotiations over the mine’s cleanup costs.
The settlement calls for Aventis (formerly known as Rhone Poulenc Inc.) to
pay $160 million into an insurance fund that will ultimately generate some
$800 million for long-term water treatment at the mine. Without such a
settlement, clean up costs would have been borne by the federal government
and, ultimately, taxpayers. Aventis, in turn, will be absolved of future
liability at the mine. The company also agreed not to try to recover the
$150 million it says it already has spent on mitigation at the mine.
“This agreement is an excellent example of government and the private
sector working together to develop a solution to a serious environmental
problem,” Winston Hickox, secretary of the California Environmental
Protection Agency (Cal-EPA), said in a prepared press release.
Money generated by the
fund will pay for the continued operation costs of the existing treatment
plant that captures runoff from the three main mines at Iron Mountain. It
also will fund construction of a new debris dam on nearly Slickrock Creek so
that drainage from that portion of the mine site can be routed through the
treatment system. Once that project is completed, officials with the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency estimate that 95 percent of the runoff from
the mine will be captured and treated.
officials estimate there are some 39,000 old and abandoned mines in
California, a legacy of the state’s rush to riches history. At least 130,
including Iron Mountain Mine, are known to discharge heavy metals into
California waterways. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, drainage
waters from Iron Mountain are the most acidic waters ever measured. The pH
value of the water is negative 3.6, below the normal pH scale of zero to 14.
On this scale, 7 is neutral, the lower the number, the more acidic the
IT ALL HERE
SUPREME COURT of
THE MOJAVE DECISION