For People Living In Red Devil, Another Mine’s Toxic Legacy Is Not Enough To Doubt Donlin’s Promise

Leann Morgan cuts a northern pike in Red Devil, Alaska on August 16, 2019. Residents of Red Devil are warned to limit how many large, predatory fish they eat because of high mercury levels, but Leann and her father Joe Morgan depend on subsistence-caught foods and plan to dry and eat the pike they caught.
Credit Katie Basile / KYUK

 Red Devil Part II

Leann Morgan stands at a makeshift table on bank of the Kuskokwim River, cutting a huge northern pike. Leann and her father, Joe Morgan, make pike a regular part of their subsistence diet. They eat salmon, lush, and sheefish. In the fall, they hunt moose. But the pike they eat contain high levels of mercury. So high, in fact, that the federal government issued a warning to Elders, children, and pregnant women to limit how much they eat from the area. But Leann and Joe aren’t worried.

Never get sick or anything, so we’re fine,” Leann said.

From left to right: Joe Morgan, Theresa Morgan, Glen Morgan, Desirae Morgan, and Tamara Stern-Morgan in Red Devil, Alaska on August 15, 2019.
Credit Katie Basile / KYUK

This part of the Kuskokwim winds through a mercury belt. That type of mercury is called cinnabar, and it naturally infiltrates the northern pike and other fish as part of the environment. It also makes the area ripe for mining. In 1933, when there were few mining regulations, Alaska’s biggest mercury mine began operating and created its own town, called Red Devil. At the mine’s peak from the 1940s through the 1960s, around 200 people lived in the town. But the mine shut down in 1971 when the price of mercury ore dropped too low to turn a profit.

After the owners left, it was discovered that the mine tailings were leaching into Red Devil Creek, a tributary of the Kuskokwim, as well as the surrounding groundwater. No one knows when they started leaking. Those tailings contain methylmercury, a particularly poisonous compound that was a byproduct of the mining operations. It can cause neurological damage, especially to unborn babies. Arsenic and antimony were also found in the tailings; both can cause cancer.

The Bureau of Land Management keeps contaminants from the old mercury mine site buried in Red Devil, Alaska on August 17, 2019.
Credit Katie Basile / KYUK

Mike McCrum is the project manager for the Red Devil Mine for the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management. He says that the owners did remove the groundwater from the mine site, but then literally just walked away, abandoning it. The materials left behind were toxic enough to attract federal attention. Throughout the 1980s, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tested the site and found that the tailings required extensive remediation.

Typically, the EPA oversees these efforts under a law called the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act or CERCLA. If the owner walks away from the site, like what happened in Red Devil, the EPA can use a fund called the Superfund to pay for remediation. But what’s happening in Red Devil is different. In 1987, both federal and state agencies began examining remediation, and the site is not technically a Superfund site with access to those funds. Instead, BLM has control over coordinating state agencies and local organizations, as well as paying for the cleanup.

Red Devil, Alaska
Credit Hannah Lies/Alaska Public Media

So far, BLM has torn down the old buildings, buried the tailings in a liner, and put up a gate that warns people of the health risks. It set up a weir to stop the leaching in 2014. BLM is set to come up with a final remediation proposal within the next year, but McCrum says that communicating the risks from the mine to the community has been a challenge. People rely on fish for food and don’t experience any immediate problems.

“Communicating risk to people is a challenge because it's a pretty abstract concept that you're talking to people whose food security is at risk,” McCrum said.

BLM tested the water from Red Devil Creek. They tested the fish that swam in that creek. They tested people’s hair. They tracked the northern pike and lush that swam in the Kuskokwim River and its tributaries. The state Department of Environmental Conservation and BLM tested and analyzed the groundwater flow around the mine and the wells of people living in the town. The results are complicated.

Signs at the entrance to the now defunct Red Devil Mine in Alaska warn people to stay out because of potential health risks. August 17, 2019.
Credit Katie Basile / KYUK

The northern pike that live farther up the river from the contaminated mine site showed higher mercury levels than those nearer to the old Red Devil Mine site. In fact, the BLM wrote this in a 2012 update to the Middle Kuskokwim communities: “This report also highlighted the complexity of mercury chemistry within the aquatic food ecosystem, which includes fish species that seasonally migrate within the Kuskokwim and its tributaries.”

BLM’s McCrum says that the northern pike prefer slower moving waters. Red Devil Creek, which flows into the Kuskokwim River, is very shallow and small, perfect for smaller fish, but not pike. And the way the Kuskokwim River flows at the mouth of the creek is too fast for northern pike to live. McCrum says that the creek dilutes the contamination before it reaches the river. Based on that, McCrum says that there is no correlation between the tailings leaking out into the river and the health of the pike.

Northern pike, a subsistence food on the upper Kuskokwim, is vulnerable to mine pollution.
Credit Katie Basile / KYUK

The Kuskokwim Corporation, a Native village corporation, owns the surface rights to the mine. Vice President Andrea Gusty says that the lengthy remediation process for Red Devil is too slow, putting more residents more at risk.

“It's been frustrating because we know the level of contamination that is in this historical mine site,” Gusty said.

Gusty is also not satisfied with the level of testing, and believes that more information is needed to truly understand the risks of the mine’s contamination. BLM says that it takes a long time to gather feedback and do enough testing in order to clean up a toxic site like the Red Devil Mine. For now, Red Devil residents aren’t too worried about mercury contamination. Joe Morgan, who caught the pike in the Holitna River, will still eat it.

Joe Morgan holds up a piece of cinnabar found on the beach outside of the now defunct Red Devil mine on August 17, 2019. Cinnabar was mined and processed on site to make mercury.
Credit Katie Basile / KYUK

Despite the Red Devil clean up, the residents are not as worried about possible contamination from the proposed Donlin Gold mine that’s about 50 miles down the river from the village. It’s a massive mine plan, but residents point out that Donlin Gold has to build it under much stricter scrutiny. 

Not everyone in the region agrees. The Association of Village Council Presidents originally supported the mine, but recently withdrew its support over environmental concerns and worries that the mine will impact subsistence animals. In Red Devil, residents emphasize jobs. The proposed mine requires a lot of infrastructure: a port, an airstrip, a power plant, a proposed 315-mile pipeline to bring gas for the power plant from Cook Inlet, a road, and fiber optic cable. Donlin says that it expects to mine 1.3 million ounces of gold over a 27 year-period. And that period could be even longer. As part of its lease agreement with the two Native corporations, which own the land and surface rights, Donlin promised to prioritize hiring local shareholders.

Donlin already has its major federal permits in hand, as well as some state ones, and hopes to get more of its state permits by the end of the year. The company is also completing its safety certification for the seven dams it plans to build. That can take up to two years. The mining will begin after that.

With lots of optimism, Red Devil residents are beginning to put in place the skeleton of basic services for the people who live there now, and the people they expect to come when the mine opens. In part three, we look at the challenges of reviving an almost ghost town.

This is a three-part series reported from a village of 20 people on the Upper Kuskokwim River that stands to gain the most from the proposed Donlin Mine. Many villages in the region are conflicted over the mine. Red Devil was built by mining almost 100 years ago and now carries a toxic legacy of mine pollution, but to most of its residents, the Donlin Gold mine represents hope. Like so many communities in Alaska, resource extraction is both a lifeline and a risk.