Restoring Resources Damaged by the Iron Mountain Mine

By Sarah Swenty, Deputy AFS External Affairs, Sacramento FWO

The tale of restoring resources damaged by turn of the century mining practices is never a short one. In the case of the Iron Mountain Mine (IMM) Superfund Site, and the Natural Resources Damage Assessment (NRDA) process that informed the case, settlement and restoration, it is truly a novel’s worth of collaboration across agencies and perseverance over decades.

Early on in the gold rush days, precious minerals were ripped out of the ground by hook or by crook. Basically, anything was fair game and often it seems no thought was given to the environment or the people affected. Located at the top of the Central Valley in Northern California where the mountains rise up out of the valley floor, Iron Mountain is a place stripped and still bleeding.

What's 6,300 times more acidic than battery acid? Water from Iron Mtn
Mine, CA. Stripped and still bleeding from turn of the century mining
practices, the Service and partners have been working to restore the
environmental damages done there.
Photo Credit: USFWS

It has been over a century since mining began in the area and problems caused by past generations are still with us. More than 6,300 times more acidic than battery acid, the most acidic waters ever measured are even now bubbling up to the surface of the abandoned Iron Mountain Mine. Toxic waste exposed over a century ago is still a challenge, but one that is being met thanks to a process that started in 1983 after it was listed as a federal Superfund site. While the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) worked to clean up the site, the NRDA process began to assess the damages caused not just to the environment but also to peoples’ enjoyment of it.  

After determining that approximately 20 million fall-run Chinook salmon were killed in the Sacramento River between 1981 and 1996 and that the public lost the use of 2024 acres of public land for recreation activities, the NRDA trustees were able to secure $9 million to restore habitat and create recreation opportunities between Keswick Reservoir and the Red Bluff. Those trustees include five agencies: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Their efforts have also been supported by the efforts of The Nature Conservancy and PG & E, and other local conservation groups including the Greater Battle Creek Watershed Conservancy.

Twelve years after the settlement and with the restoration funds nearly spent, the question becomes one of evaluation. Is what we are seeing unfold living up to what the trustees envisioned recovering in the 1990’s? Has their work and dedication to the long term task of restoring the resource paid off?

The Battle Creek Salmon and Steelhead Restoration Project is one of the projects where success is rushing along. All told, the project will restore 42 miles of salmon and steelhead spawning and rearing habitat by removing barriers to migration and eliminating the transport of water from the North Fork to the South Fork of Battle Creek. The latter is important because with the cooler waters from the north piped into the south fork, north fork salmon get confused and head to the lower quality habitat of the south fork by mistake. The IMM trustees contributed $6.5 million to this effort.

Dan Welsh was the NRDA branch chief for FWS in Sacramento when the case was settled in 2000. Now an Assistant Field Supervisor with the agency, Welsh has been on-hand to see the work done and resources restored. On a restoration sites visit in September, 2012, Welsh and other trustee representatives were able to meet with local people getting the job done and assess how well goals set over a decade ago were met and how far the money went to restore habitat for salmon and public lands for all to enjoy.

Welsh recalled that although the trustees could not fund all of the restoration efforts at Battle Creek, it was the IMM NRDA funding that made the initial commitment and took the project from the design phase and put it into construction. “It may not have been the biggest chunk, but it was the first in the door and pushed it wide open for others to follow.”

Fish ladders are not small planks pushed into the mud; they are large
concrete structures that must serve the dual purpose of being able to
allow fish to move safely upstream while diverting water through the
system at a high enough pressure and velocity to produce electricity.
Photo Credit: Sarah Swenty/USFWS

Walking down steep canyons to see newly installed fish ladders, it is easy to see why this project has moved slowly and cost as much as it did. If you have never seen a fish ladder it is hard to picture what it entails, and it certainly does not seem like it would be expensive or difficult to construct. However, these are not small planks pushed into the mud; they are large concrete structures that must serve the dual purpose of being able to allow fish to move safely upstream while diverting water through the system at a high enough pressure and velocity to produce electricity. They must also function without regular maintenance and prevent debris from clogging the system. Add to that the challenge of getting tons of concrete and steel down into the canyons where the fish ladders are needed and it’s no wonder that restoring Battle Creek has taken the dedication and dollars it has.

Ensuring that the monies secured for restoration in the IMM NRDA settlement are spent properly and that the work funded makes a difference to the health of an ecosystem damaged so severely takes hypervigilance. That happens thanks to the team approach of the NRDA process. As agencies work to meet the needs of wildlife and the expectations of the public, years go by, policies and budgets change, and people move from job to job.

While visiting Clear Creek, another site that has benefited from IMM NRDA funding, Paul Meyer from BLM spoke of the “yin and yang of collaboration” and its importance to the NRDA process and restoration success. “In the give and take of restoration through time and process, collaboration between agencies and partners is essential in that it ensures there is always a standard bearer. When one agency is struggling because of personnel or budgets challenges, another can carry the load and forward momentum continues.”

Fish ladders are not small planks pushed into the mud; they are large
concrete structures that must serve the dual purpose of being able to allow
fish to move safely upstream while diverting water through the system at
a high enough pressure and velocity to produce electricity.
Photo Credit: Sarah Swenty/USFWS

That momentum led to the IMM NRDA funding to protect 3,341 acres on and around Clear Creek. Through easements and by helping to restore more than 40 miles of salmon and steelhead streams, remove fish barriers and install new fish passages, Clear Creek is well on its way back to becoming prime salmon habitat. More fish in the system equals real dollars in our economy.

An important part of the IMM NRDA restoration plan compensates for the loss of recreation hours and lands available for public use. Time in nature is essential to us and when that ability has been lost due to contamination caused by companies, the NRDA process identifies the responsible parties and holds them accountable. To create opportunities for the public to enjoy nature, the IMM NRDA council is funding the completion of hiking trails on the Sacramento River Rail-Trail and the Keswick Trail Extension, created a scenic overlook for families to enjoy and more.  

The Battle Creek and Clear Creek restoration projects are only two examples of benefits derived for the public and environment as a direct result of the IMM NRDA process. With those funds nearly fully spent, the work of the trustees may be coming to a close, but thanks to their perseverance and dedication, the benefits of the restoration they supported will be around for their grandchildren’s grandchildren to enjoy.