The Iron Mountain Mine sits several miles to the west above my home. Iron Mountain is a mass of sulfide deposits located in Shasta County in the southern corner of the Klamath Mountains, about 9 miles north of Redding, California. I grew up seeing her rusty, scarred mountain side. The blood orange rock swipes a slash of roguish beauty across the greens, browns and blues of the vegetation, earth and sky. I take her for granted. Always have. She has been there for as long as I can remember. Little did I realize how little I knew about this mine I have lived beneath all of my life. What I did know was that the mining caused vegetation kills for many miles in all directions. The manzanita bushes that are so prolific, and that many believe to be indigenous to this area, were imported and planted in the 1940s and 1950s on the bare hills to stop erosion.
This mining area formed nearly 400 million years ago in a marine environment. Sulfur-rich hydrothermal fluids were released from geothermal hot springs on the sea floor. In the mid 1800s, a settler and a surveyor, after noticing the brilliant red color of the rock face of Iron Mountain, perceived "an immense iron deposit."
Photos courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration/Department of Commerce
In addition to the iron, it contained silver. Mining of the silver began. Sulfide deposits were found inside the mountain in the mid 1890s and copper mining followed. The mountain was also found to be rich in gold, iron, zinc, and pyrite (iron sulfide). The pyrite, a sulfur source, was used for manufacture of fertilizers, munitions, and in refining petroleum. The mountain is the largest hard rock mine in California, and was one on the largest copper mines in the world. It is estimated that more than half of the original ore remains. Vast fortunes were evacuated from her bowels.
People labored in unimaginable tasks, pulling world changing copper ore from the earth, allowing for the modern age revolution. At the turn of the century, in gold alone, she made her owners over a million dollars a day. In 1896, after just three years, stockholders received over half of their investments in dividends. The mountain was a benevolent mistress, proffering not only wealth, but livelihood to as many as 2000 workers.
A small mining community, known as Minnesota, formed near the mine. Just last summer, a massive forest fire devoured what was left of the old town. Only the 80 year old school house remains. In the early 1970s, as a young adult, we used to party up there. We would pull off the road and hike into a series of beautiful water falls. At the beginning of the hike, we would stop at this one-room school house and explore. There was not much left even then. Some old books. A worn, chipped blackboard. One or two dilapidated oak, flip-top desks. And an eerie feeling of life existing just beneath the surface, like fish under the surface of a lake. Memories of another time were choked out by the vines pushing through the cracks in the foundation. We would linger for a while here, in another world, and then hike down to the lower falls, skinny dip and tan under the blasting Redding sun, burn some Mexican blunt, and drink Ripple.
Shortly after 1896, they began operating a copper cementation plant. A large basin of water filled with the water that drains from the mine was allowed to flow over a lot of scrap iron The resulting reaction precipitates the copper out. This is known as Acid Mine Drainage, AMD. Acid Mine Drainage was naturally occurring in the bodies of ore long before the mining began. By the 1920s, Sacramento River fish kills were blamed on Iron Mountain. The completion of Shasta Dam in the 1950s stopped the natural dilution of the acids by stemming back the heavy rains. The mine closed after the price of copper dropped to the bottom. The property was sold twice after that.
Iron Mountain is viewed as "a worst-case scenario" in the formation of AMD. The contamination was equal, in breadth and scope, to Love Canal, one of the largest environmental disasters on record. Money from the Superfund was appropriated for the clean up of the site. Superfund is the generic name for the environmental policy, Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). The purpose of the law was to protect communities, people, families, and others from abandoned sites of toxic waste. The $950 million settlement was one of the largest settlements with a single private pay.
Acid mine drainage, Slickrock Creek
Photos courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Department of Commerce
The owners of the mine, Iron Mountain Mining, Inc., IMMI, hung on despite the adversity. Throught the years, they have attempted bio-mining techniques that are believed to be harmless to the surface environment. Any attempts to tap the mines resources have consistently been stymied by the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA. IMMI insists that solution mining is the only viable remedy for the AMD, and the 25 year battle of Iron Mountain Mines continue in the Courts. Today 40% of all copper mining worldwide is solution mining. The company exists financially by selling what has already been mined, hobbled by the EPA at every step.
Interest in the sizable ore deposits of Iron Mountain have been rekindled by emerging technologies. Technologies like zinc/air batteries, solar cells based in cadmium that have the potential to liberate our dependence on foreign oil, and iron and copper catalysts. But these will have to wait until the courts settle the battle between IMMI and the EPA.
Until then, IMMI is planning to erect a huge statue of Christ and create an area for spiritual retreat, complete with gondola ride from the parking area to the summit. Also, they are offering sweet relief from our brutally hot summers in the cool mountain air. Some how, out of all of this destruction, life prevails. The University of California at Berkeley sent biologists to study the microbes that allow Acid Mine Drainage to occur. Among them, new life forms were discovered. The new organism, ferroplasma acidarmanus, is being studied with hopes of understanding how far back in the tree of life this life form originated. IMMI also has plans to erect a campus and laboratory at the old Minnesota town site. Additionally in the works, is a reforestation project. They hope to make Redding the heart of a technological revolution creating dependence from foreign oil. They hope to offer employment to the community in the making of finished products. They plan to protect the wild life and natural state of the area. Hmmm...Holy guano Batman! We need the Toxic Avenger!