“Toxic” doesn’t do justice to Iron Mountain runoff

imredThe EPA’s new regional administrator, Jared Blumenfeld,  joined California officials deep inside an otherworldly realm of deadly caustic waste deemed the most toxic place on earth, reports Peter Fimrite of the San Francisco Chronicle.

The Iron Mountain Mine lies nine miles from the city of Redding at the north end of the Sacramento Valley. It was first tapped in the 1890s as a source of sulfuric acid and later for copper.  When miners uncovered vast deposits of pyrite, exposing it to oxygen, water and bacteria, it began breaking down and creating poisonous runoff.

The fluid leaking out of the mine has an otherwise unheard-of negative Ph value.  As Fimrite reports,

“There is nothing that we have in the world today that solves this particular dilemma,” [Rick] Sugarek [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s project manager at the site] said. “What we can do is collect it and treat it and hope that in the next 30 years we have come up with new technology or techniques to resolve it.”

EPA says it has grown much more effective in recent decades at containing the waste. Earlier attempts were unable to prevent highly acidic water from reaching tributaries of the Sacramento River, one of the state’s main waterways and a source of drinking water for millions downstream.

There is plenty scientists still don’t know. Bacteria have been discovered deep in the mine thriving in locations extremely inhospitable to life, dissolving iron and producing sulfuric acid.  A NASA robot sent in to explore the mine vanished without a trace.

Officials will have plenty of time to try again. Scientists expect the mine’s pyrite to continue producing deadly caustic sludge for another 3,000 years.

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