Rivers Of Acid

Iron Mountain Mine, Photo: Bob Dawson/ Farewell, Promised Land Project, 1992

Tucked away in the Klamath Mountains in California's far north, a 70-story pile of crushed rock leaks garish orange-and-green water into a tributary of the headwaters of the Sacramento River, nine miles north of Redding in Shasta county. The water here has been measured at "-3" that is 10,000 times more acidic than battery acid. This is Iron Mountain, a 4,400-acre site, which produces a quarter of all toxic zinc and copper released each year into United States waters from all sources, including all factories and cities. It is expected to leak for 3,000 years.

Like thousands of other abandoned mines in the West, the waste rock dumped around the site has a high sulfur content. Normally hidden deep under ground, this ore waste leaks sulfuric acid when it is exposed to air, bacteria and water. The acid dissolves other metals from arsenic to zinc, all of which are toxic to fish and human beings, and discharges it into local water sources. Today these sites have become "perpetual pollution machines" that are physically impossible to completely clean up with any technology.

Hidden below the surface of the mine is a network of tunnels and chambers, now collapsed. The Richmond mine alone, one of four big ones, is as big as a buried city. "Imagine yourself in downtown San Francisco, and you've got 20 office buildings between 10 and 20 stories high. That's what they've carved out underground. After mining, they allowed the rocks to fall in. So you have a rubblized zone in the mountain that's 70 stories high and covers the footprint of the office buildings. The water filters through this broken up pyrite deposit, just like a big Mr. Coffee, and forms a highly concentrated mine drainage," says Ray Sugarek, project manager for the clean-up effort at the mine.

Originally an iron mine opened in the 1860s by William Magee, a land surveyor, it was turned into the biggest copper producer on the pacific coast. In 1890 it was bought by Mountain Copper, a British company, and the mine made a million dollars in profits every day in 1898.

Today the total clean-up costs are estimated at nine billion dollars. Rhone Poulenc - 12 percent owned by the French government - has been deemed responsible for the site, but has sued to avoid paying these costs.

Environmental Protection Agency teams have been hard at work trying to clean up this site and they say that they have cut the toxic waste to a fifth of what it once was. Still the mine leaks 180 pounds of deadly copper into the river, over three times the amount of this metal permitted for all activities in the San Francisco Bay Area.

"Sometimes we feel that we're issuing jaywalking tickets in the Bay Area when there are homicides occurring just up the river," says Larry Kolb, assistant executive officer of the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Right beside this disaster zone is another major tragedy. The Wintu tribe, once the traditional landholders of this area, have been battling for decades to be recognized. Carole Miller, the secretary of the tribe, says: "All our time is spent trying to prove that we exist. We are working hard to get establish a paper trail to prove that we were a tribe and that we are still working together. But the federal government keeps changing the regulations, telling us we have prove we existed at an earlier date. Now the city of Shasta Lake wants to turn a 99 acre plot of our land over to a German company called Knauf to manufacture fiberglass even though it would affect two of our burial grounds and an area where our elders collect medicinal plants."

Nor is Iron Mountain the only copper calamity in the California Mountains. Acid drainage from the Penn Mine in Calaveras County east of San Francisco in the Sierra Nevada foothills, which was active from the 1860's to the 1950's, has produced a plume of contamination in ground water that has flowed directly into the Mokelumne River until the construction of the Camanche dam in 1963. Surface water pH has been measured as low as 2.3 with high concentrations of sulfate and metals including aluminum, cadmium, copper, iron, and zinc. In 1978 seven unlined wastewater ponds were built by the East Bay Municipal Utility District and California Regional Water Quality Control Board - Central Valley Region to divert the polluted water.

Gold mining in old gold-rush areas continues to threaten local communities. In August 1997, the water at the Grizzly Hill school in north San Juan, also in the Sierra Nevada foothills, turned nasty shortly after a mining company named Siskon shut down operations.

"It made me feel lightheaded when I drank the water and then I barfed in the toilet afterward," said 10-year-old Daniel Alger, a school student. School authorities notified parents and posted signs at the school's drinking fountains that say, "Do Not Drink Water.'' The 125 students in grades four to eight instead fill cups from bottled water dispensers in classrooms.

Initial tests in September and October showed concentrations of iron as high as 133 times the level allowed by state law for drinking water. Manganese hit 163 times the legal limit; aluminum, 5 1/2 times; nickel, seven times; and zinc, four times. The water also exceeded odor standards by as much as 17 times and was nearly 20 times the standard for turbidity.

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