Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Mining settlement gives land to Elem Colony, pays millions for cleanup

CLEARLAKE OAKS, Calif. – A new agreement between federal agencies, a local tribe and a mining company will see the tribe significantly increase its land holdings and millions paid to cover cleanup costs around several now inactive mines, including the Sulphur Bank Mercury Mine.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Thursday that it had reached a $10 million, multi-party settlement agreement to settle cleanup costs for seven sites in California, Oregon and Idaho that were used for mining mercury, tungsten, stibnite and scheelite.

The sites include the Sulphur Bank Mine in Clearlake Oaks and Mt. Diablo Mine in Contra Costa County; the Opalite Mine and Bretz Mine, both in Malheur County, Ore.; the Springfield Mine and Stibnite Mine in Valley County, Idaho; and the IMA Mine in Lemhi County, Idaho, according to court documents.

The parties to the agreement include the U.S. Department of the Interior, the U.S. Forest Service, the Bradley Mining Co., the Worthen Bradley Family Trust and the Elem Indian Colony of Pomo Indians of Clearlake Oaks.

Jared Blumenfeld, regional administrator for EPA’s Pacific Southwest region, said the settlement – which he called “significant” – took three years to hammer out.

“The result is a win for Clear Lake and a win for the Elem Colony,” said Blumenfeld. “This settlement will help the Clear Lake ecosystem recover, including reducing the risks due to mercury in fish. It also demonstrates EPA’s strong commitment to supporting the environmental cleanup of tribal lands.”

Messages left for Elem Colony tribal leaders and administrators were not returned on Thursday.

The settlement, lodged in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, is subject to a 30-day public comment period and final court approval.

The settlement and accompanying document can be found at the U.S. Department of Justice Web site, www.usdoj.gov/enrd/Consent_Decrees.html.

The settlement calls for the Bradley Mining Co. and Bradley Trust to transfer nearly all of their land holdings at the Sulphur Bank Mercury Mine to a new trust created to retain the lands pending EPA cleanup.

In addition, the Elem Indian Colony will receive approximately 380 acres of uncontaminated land – more than seven times the size of its current land holdings totaling 50 acres – as compensation for natural resource damages from mining operations by the Bradley Mining Company, the EPA reported.

The EPA said it will receive nearly $7 million in federal funds to reimburse its costs for cleaning up contamination at the Elem Indian Colony and the access road to the colony, a project which occurred several years ago.

The settlement requires proceeds from insurance policies and any future income from the Bradley Mining Co. to be divided among the seven mine sites for future cleanup, with Bradley Mining retaining a share of the proceeds.

The Sulphur Bank Mercury Mine Superfund Site, located at the southeastern end of the Oaks Arm of Clear Lake, includes the Elem Indian Colony, is located directly adjacent to the mine property.

The U.S. EPA said the Sulphur Bank site initially was mined for sulfur from 1865 to 1871, mercury ore was mined intermittently by underground methods from 1873 to 1905 and open-pit mined from 1915 to 1957.

Court records stated that Bradley Mining operated the mine – once one of the largest producers of mercury in California – from at least 1937 to 1957, when it was finally closed.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Bradley Mining reportedly sold mined materials to the Bureau of Indian Affairs for use on road and housing projects on the Elem Indian Colony, documents stated. Those mine tailings were among the removed materials in a cleanup that took place in 2006 and 2007.

EPA said that from 1991 to 2008 it has conducted a number of projects at the Sulphur Bank Superfund site, including stabilizing mined materials located on the shoreline between the mine and Clear Lake, removing mined materials from a wetlands area, constructing a chain-link fence along the main road leading to the site, building a surface water diversion pipeline, sealing three abandoned geothermal exploration wells and removing contaminated soil – which was replaced with clean soil – in residential areas in the Elem Indian Colony.

Even so, the EPA said three million cubic yards of mine wastes and tailings remain on the mine site, mercury is present in the bottom sediments in Clear Lake and mercury has bioconcentrated in the food chain of Clear Lake, leading to the state issuing an advisory to limit consumption of fish.

The agency told Lake County News on Thursday that it is currently evaluating solutions for the mine area, including the Herman Pit, the mine's impoundment pond.

They’re expecting to propose a cleanup plan for the mine area within the next year. This summer the EPA will conduct a pilot study to cap mercury-contaminated sediments in Clear Lake and determine how effective the cap is in reducing exposure to mercury.

Once the EPA has determined an appropriate technology to achieve environmental protection for the area – likely several years away – the agency will make a decision on how to deal with the sediments, officials said.

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