Redding, California - Rick Sugarek knows not to splash through the puddles inside "the mouth of the beast."
That is what he calls the gaping wound near Redding known to
everybody else as the Iron Mountain Mine, which is widely regarded by
scientists as one of the most polluted places in the world.
The project manager for the Environmental Protection Agency said he
once dropped a pen in some running water inside the mine and when he
recovered it, it was coated in copper. The water is so acidic that
droplets eat holes in blue jeans and dissolve the stitching on boots,
much like battery acid.
Sugarek stood Thursday in a shaft once known as the Richmond Mine.
It is the source of the toxic stew that has polluted the Sacramento
River and its tributaries for more than a century, killed thousands of
fish and turned a once-majestic mountain into a hellish breeding ground
for nasty bacterial slime that helps create what geologists say is the
"world's worst water."
But on this day Sugarek was full of hope, despite the dismal
surroundings. The EPA was recently awarded $20.7 million in federal
stimulus funds to clean up the heavy metals that have flowed into and
accumulated at the bottom of the Keswick Reservoir for decades,
threatening fish if not people. Sugarek said the metals have settled to
the bottom and do not affect the quality of the drinking water.
The money, combined with $10 million already budgeted for the
project, will pay for construction of three pumping stations, piping
and the hydraulic dredging of the 170,000 cubic yards of fine toxic
metals that to this day coat the bottom of the Spring Creek arm of the
Separating out the solids
"What we're trying to deal with now is the 50 years of stuff that
has accumulated at the bottom of the reservoir since it was built,"
said Sugarek, who has been working at the Toxic Superfund site for 20
years. "This is an important management area for California's water
supply, and toxic chemicals are flowing down."
Sugarek said the idea is to clean up the site, not restore the
ecosystem, so other areas are not contaminated. He said a storm could
stir up the sludge in reservoir. The plan then is to dredge the area
over the next 18 months, pump the fine sediments up to a treatment
center that will separate out the solids. The toxic sediments will then
be dried out and dumped into a 12-acre pit on nearby federal land. The
pit will be lined with thick plastic sheets and then covered and
Prospecting in 1860s
The work is expected to employ as many as 300 people over three
years. In the end, Sugarek hopes, the threat to waterways, including
the Sacramento River, should have ended.
The trouble began in the 1860s when gold and silver prospectors
first discovered the mountain, about 9 miles northwest of Redding.
The real damage began when a company called Mountain Copper took
over the 4,400-acre mine in the 1890s and began to supply sulfuric acid
to refineries in the Bay Area. At the turn of the century, it was the
largest copper mine in California, and a small city of laborers lived
on the mountain. Twenty cavities the size of office buildings were
drilled into the mountain.
Much of the work on the Richmond Mine occurred during World War II, leaving the entire mountain scarred.
The mining operation turned to rubble what was originally a
200-foot-thick by 3,000-foot-long underground deposit of pyrite,
exposing it to oxygen, water and bacteria that combined to create the
poisonous runoff. Water that flowed out of the shaft where the pyrite
lay formed bluish blocks of acid salt, which deer sometimes used as
The Bureau of Reclamation built an earthen dam in 1963 to block the
steady flow of sludge, but it would often overflow during heavy winter
rains and the copper and metals would get into the Sacramento River.
The mine was finally abandoned in 1966 and collapsed in on itself shortly after that. The problem, it seemed, only got worse.
Lethal blend of copper, iron
Tens of thousands of fish have been killed since then. By the time
the EPA took over management of the area in the 1980s, a ton of acidic
water and heavy metals a day were flowing into the river, Sugarek said.
The water in the debris dam was blood red from a mixture of iron and
Desperate, the EPA built the Slick Rock Creek Retention Dam in 2004,
which captured 98 percent of the sludge. The sludge is dried and dumped
in the open pit mine on top of the mountain. Now the EPA is
concentrating on the leftover mess.
But money cannot completely resolve the problem. Researchers
recently found six unique strains of bacteria that live in a bed of
pink slime that is part of a little-understood biochemical cycle that
devours iron, produces sulfuric acid, and creates a nightmarish broth
of copper, zinc and arsenic. That toxic broth will continue pouring out
of the mine forever, or until someone figures out a way to neutralize
the chemical and biological reactions, scientists say.
"We spent a good deal of time trying to see if we could shut it
down, and our conclusion was that we couldn't," said Sugarek, adding
that the only hope is for some future innovation or new technology. "We
know we can continue what we are doing for 100 years. The estimate is
that it will take the mountain about 3,000 years to use up all the
The damp, dark passage where Sugarek stood Thursday was nothing
compared with the hellish alien environment deeper inside the mine.
There, chemical reactions drive temperatures up to 130 degrees, the
water is almost pure sulfuric acid, and stalactites and stalagmites of
acid salt cover the walls.
Dissolving aluminum, skin
"If you go back 1,500 feet, the temperature is 100 degrees, you
start to see the acid salts and it smells like sulfur," Sugarek said.
"You don't want to use an aluminum ladder because it will just
A NASA scientist once sent a robot into the bowels of the mine. It
did not return, Sugarek said. Nobody that he knows of has been killed,
but Sugarek said a worker testing the water above the debris dam
suffered "some exfoliation of the skin" after his rubber raft was
punctured and he was forced to swim to safety.
Little help from owner
The elderly owner of the property, Ted Arman, who bought the
3,500-foot mountain from the last mining company for $100,000, has not
been much help, proposing a resumption of mining in addition to
construction of a 200-foot-tall marble statue of Jesus Christ.
Sugarek said rockslides and dam failures are still concerns.
"We have shut the leak off," he said. "What we're worried about is
that a discharge from the debris dam during a big storm could cause an