Historic mining town plagued by arsenic gets federal funds for cleanup effort – San Bernardino Sun

To many of the 100 or so full-time residents of Red Mountain, a historic mining town on the northwestern tip of San Bernardino County’s desert, John Hall is unofficially known as mayor.

Hall, 75, isn’t quite sure why.

Maybe it’s because he’s lasted more than 30 years in this hard-scrap place, where locals truck in water to avoid the arsenic that decades of mining left in the ground and their tap water. Maybe it’s because his 96-year-old home was built for the superintendent of Kelly Silver Mine, with views from his front porch of the toppled steel tower that once capped the nation’s most productive silver mine.

One thing is clear: Hall is proud of the Old West legacy and defiant sense of freedom that his community, like other so-called “living ghost towns” scattered across the country, maintains. But he’d still like to see Red Mountain become a healthier environment, both for his unofficial constituents and for the wildlife that once frequented this area.

So, despite their often strained relationship with federal authorities, Red Mountain locals were cautiously optimistic to learn that the community recently received one of the biggest pots of federal money as part of what’s been deemed “the largest investment in cleaning up legacy pollution in American history.”

A total of $17.4 million has been allocated from last year’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Act to mitigate environmental and physical hazards and to restore vegetation at a couple dozen abandoned mines throughout the country. In California, that includes funds to make sites at Joshua Tree National Park and in the San Diego National Wildlife Refuge safer by, say, adding grates to old mine shafts that keep hikers out but still let bats and small mammals in.

The largest allocation in California, and second largest for a single site nationwide, is the $1.5 million set aside for the Bureau of Land Management to clear sediment from a massive wash that runs below Red Mountain. The site is popular with protected wildlife, such as desert tortoises, and with adventure-seekers, such as off-roaders. It’s also laden with toxic arsenic.

Arsenic occurs naturally in the Earth’s crust, and can be brought to the surface during underground mining operations. Modern environmental laws require mining companies to contain such materials, since arsenic is a known carcinogen that can also cause everything from skin lesions to developmental delays to death.

But a century ago, after miners extracted the gold or silver or other valuable elements in places like Red Mountain, they’d simply leave the ground-up waste materials (known as tailings) in piles, where strong desert winds would blow the toxic sediment throughout the area. Or they’d haul it to low-lying spots, such as a wash, where rare but torrential rains would deposit the material for miles and help pollutants such as arsenic leach into local water sources.

That’s why Red Mountain — along with the neighboring towns of Johannesburg and Randsburg, which are collectively known as the Rand Mining District — are considered the “hottest spots” in Southern California for arsenic, according to Christopher Kim, an environmental geochemist and professor at Chapman University in Orange who studies contamination from old mine sites.

Kim and a team of students spent time in Red Mountain more than a decade ago, taking soil samples from residents’ yards and the wash and testing them for arsenic. Their work helped lead the Environmental Protection Agency in 2012 to declare one corner of Red Mountain a Superfund site that “posed an imminent and substantial endangerment to human health and the environment.” The agency worked with a local property owner to add a fence and “arsenic poison” warning signs, then used federal funds to cap a large mining waste pile with clean material so it wouldn’t continue to pollute the town.

Trying to clean contamination from the miles-long wash will be a more complicated endeavor, Kim said. So he was pleased to see the BLM, which manages much of the land around Red Mountain, receive $1.5 million to start work in the area and others like it.

“The history of the Gold Rush is an important part of California history, and I think the environmental legacy of the gold rush is one that hasn’t gotten as much attention,” Kim said. “So it’s important for us to be aware of these issues and to protect the health of people that live in those areas and people who come there to hike and recreate.”

A rich mining legacy

Rand Mining District got its start in 1895 when three men discovered gold at what would be known as Yellow Aster Mine. Within two years, a post office, bank and school had been established to support the 1,500 people who called the new town of Randsburg home.

Johannesburg sprung up a mile away, in 1897, primarily as a supply town for mining operations in the area. It was the terminus for the short-lived Randsburg Railway that tied in to the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad at Kramer Junction.

In June 1919, prospectors discovered silver a few miles to the southeast. The main settlement near the silver mine initially went by Osdick before it came to be known as Red Mountain, for the red soil in the volcanic peak that towers about 1,500 feet over the surrounding desert. Within five years, over 10 million ounces of silver and 30,000 ounces of gold, worth more than $10 million combined in 1924 dollars, had been hauled out of Red Mountain’s Kelly Mine complex.

Red Mountain thrived as a social center for the Rand Mining District into the 1930s. The Rand Desert Museum has newspaper accounts of raids for alcohol sales during Prohibition and arrests of “wild women” in the town known for having several brothels. But as the price of gold and other metals started to fall, local mining gradually slowed, halting entirely in the 1940s. Speculators tried to revive operations in the 1960s and again in the mid-’80s, when gold prices soared and technology for finding deposits improved. So far, nothing has stuck.

Today, tourists driving along Highway 395 on weekends stop in Randsburg for an old-fashioned soda at the General Store, some antique shopping, and a photo opportunity on the Old West-style street.

Some people vacation here, coming from places like Los Angeles and Orange County to enjoy dark starry skies and extensive off-road trails.

That’s how, on a recent crisp morning, Barry Duncan of North Carolina came to be guarding a historic garage. He works for Polaris, a company that manufacturers ATVs and other recreational vehicles. They had a team out testing vehicles on numerous established trails in the hills around the Rand Historic Complex.

Johannesburg boasts the area’s only gas station, while Red Mountain has the Owl Cafe, which isn’t a cafe at all but a sometimes-open museum of sorts dedicated to the area’s history. And signs throughout the area can guide visitors on a driving tour of mining sites that haven’t produced much to speak of in decades.

Home challenging home

That lack of recent mining success hasn’t stopped men like Hall from making their way here to try and strike it rich.

Hall passed through Red Mountain in the early 1990s, when he was living in San Diego and driving up to the Northern California mining town of Downieville to do some prospecting. He saw two men standing by the side of the road, just off Highway 395, and asked what they were doing. One man said, “I’m just a cowboy without a horse,” Hall recalls with a chuckle.

When the men told Hall about the town’s mining legacy, he decided to cut his trip north short. He asked if they knew of a room available to rent and the men took him to meet Ruth “Ma” Jodrey, who at the time was the matriarch of Red Mountain. Jodrey took Hall under her wing, eventually leaving property to him when she passed.

Thirty years later, Hall still goes into the hills to mine for gold. He’s never hit it big and now considers prospecting a hobby. But he has mining equipment scattered throughout his half-acre compound, where he lives with a friendly black cat named Mato and makes impressive art from broken glass and other items he finds in the surrounding desert.

Dewy Stephenson, 70, says a bit sheepishly that he was lured to Red Mountain by a girl. She wanted to move from Ridgecrest, a city a half-hour north where they all go to buy water and groceries and everything else they need. Stephenson — whose truck boasts a “Don’t blame me, I voted for Trump” bumper sticker — said he enjoys the quiet of the town and that people leave you alone.

That’s a common thread throughout the community, where fences made from wagon wheels, headboards and corrugated metal mark properties overflowing with vintage vehicles and rusty gear of all sorts.

San Bernardino County Code Enforcement occasionally makes the trek out and asks residents to clean things up a bit, Hall said. Otherwise, Hall said the only folks who “bother” them are BLM crews who come to fence off old mining areas, ask to test their soil or remind them to mop their floors and wash their hands often to avoid contact with the area’s arsenic-laden soil.

“They said, ‘Well, you know, you shouldn’t pet your animals or anything or let them in the house because they’re bringing arsenic in,’” Hall said, looking down at Mato as the cat rolled in dirt at his feet.

Hall agreed to take a urine test several years back and said a BLM representative told him he had more arsenic in his body than they’d ever seen. Still, Hall said he feels healthy for his age and chalked up the warnings to scare tactics. He’s convinced the BLM simply wants residents to move away so they won’t have to worry anymore about liability.

But Census data shows just 7% of Red Mountain residents are currently employed. Most are older, white and male. The per capita income is just over $11,000 a year, with homes in the area recently selling for around $45,000. So even if residents wanted to leave, where could they afford to go?

Cleanup underway

That environmental justice component is a major reason Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a statement that the Biden administration is prioritizing cleanup of legacy mining operations, which often leave rural and Tribal communities to grapple with pollution and other hazards.

California has been particularly plagued with the problem of abandoned mines, and the contamination that often comes along with them, since the discovery of gold in 1848.

It’s estimated the state has about 47,000 abandoned mines. And of the roughly 24,400 sites on BLM-managed land, some 84% present physical hazards, such as open mine shafts, while 11% present environmental hazards such as contamination.

Red Mountain has both.

Soil testing has found as much as 10,000 milligrams of arsenic per kilogram in some parts of Red Mountain. There’s no established “safe” level of arsenic in soil, Kim explained, because there are complex risk factors such as how fine the materials are and how people and animals contact them, be it touching, breathing or consuming the particles. But the baseline arsenic level in the area is closer to 130 milligrams. So a BLM report from more than a decade ago states such concentrations “pose very high risk” for both residents and for recreational visitors, with children particularly at risk.

With federal funding the BLM received for this project, Kate Miyamoto, a spokesperson for the agency’s California Desert District, said an environmental contractor is now conducting surveys for sensitive species over 44 acres affected by historic mining in the Red Mountain wash area. In fall 2023, they’ll start to remove mine waste and haul it to an undetermined storage site, where it will be covered in a three-foot layer of clean material. Then they’ll work to restore vegetation in the area, with community outreach done along the way.

Separately, the agency that provides water to Red Mountain and the surrounding communities has been working to reduce its arsenic issues.

Earlier this year, testing showed the community’s main well used for drinking water had arsenic slightly above national standards. Rand Communities Water District said it was building a blending tank to mix water sources and dilute arsenic levels going forward.

But while Stephenson and Hall said they both use tap water to wash dishes and bathe and such, Hall said, “Everybody pretty much drinks bottled water here.”

Such conditions haven’t stopped this area from luring new dreamers to town.

With the price of gold rising, an Indian Wells-based startup called Kelly Mine Investment recently started selling stock and seeking permits to begin exploratory drilling for gold, silver and tungsten in the area.

Such talk still puts a spark in Hall’s eyes. If a new boom comes, the mayor said, his town will be ready.

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