The Red Top Retort Site is an abandoned mercury retorting site. Contaminants of concern at the Site are mercury and oil. The Site is on the east bank of the Wood River about 2 miles downstream from the village of Aleknagik, Alaska. The Site is located within Section 29, Township 10 South, Range 55 West, Seward Meridian. The legal description for the Site is Lots 1 and 2, United States Survey 12403. The retort facility was physically located within a few feet of the river in Lot 2. The land is currently administered by BLM. The land is selected for conveyance to Aleknagik Natives Ltd. (surface estate) and the Bristol Bay Native Corporation (subsurface estate) under authority of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
At the Red Top Retort Site mercury was extracted from cinnabar ore mined on nearby Marsh Mountain (Red Top Mine). Cinnabar is mercury-sulfide; a bright red colored mineral. Available records show the retort operated for two years, from 1954-1955 and produced 26 flasks of mercury. The retort process extracts mercury from cinnabar by heating crushed ore inside a closed chamber and condensing the resulting vapors into elemental mercury. The mercury is then placed in 2.5 quart steel flasks which weigh about 76 pounds when full.
Cinnabar was first discovered in Arcana Creek in 1941 by Frank H. Waskey while panning for gold. Cinnabar deposits on Feeder Creek and Marsh Mountain proper were discovered in 1942. The prospectors staked claims and formed a partnership that later became Red Top Mercury Mines, Inc. During 1942-1943 high-grade cinnabar was shipped to Washington State for processing which produced several flasks of mercury. During those years mining consisted of hand dug pits and sluicing gravels from placer claims on Arcana and Feeder Creeks. During 1952-1953 the company obtained a loan from the Defense Mineral Exploration Administration (DMEA) and used the funds to conduct a mechanized exploration program of trenching, then surface stripping discovered lode deposits on Marsh Mountain. In 1952 ore to produce 22 flasks of mercury was shipped to an outside retort facility. Cinnabar mined during 1953 was stockpiled on-site.
During 1954 Red Top Mercury Mines, Inc. built and began operating a small wood fired retort facility within a five acre mill site claim on the east bank of the Wood River. In an effort to more efficiently extract mercury, the retort was subsequently converted to burn Bunker-C oil. The retort ceased operating permanently in 1955 after producing 26 flasks of mercury from the previously stockpiled ore.
In 1955 Moneta-Porcupine Mines, Ltd. leased the Marsh Mountain placer and lode claims. Moneta-Porcupine obtained a loan from the DMEA to conduct underground exploration. The DMEA loan was for exploration only; use of the Red Top Retort Site was not included in the lease. In 1956 DeCoursey Mountain Mining partnered with Moneta-Porcupine in the underground exploration effort. During 1955-1958 two adits were driven into Marsh Mountain and the produced ore was stockpiled on-site. By 1959 mining had ceased entirely at the Red Top Mine. Mr. Clarence Wren, one of the original claim owners and President of Red Top Mercury Mines, Inc. reported to a Bureau of Mines inspector in 1959 that to date over the life of the Red Top Mine a total of 30 flasks of mercury had been produced, with enough ore stockpiled to produce 30 more.
By 1962 the lease with Moneta-Porcupine had been terminated and the claims on Marsh Mountain were then leased to Mr. Clayton Rasmussen. Mr. Rasmussen did not mine, but rather hand sorted high-grade cinnabar ore from the stockpiles on Marsh Mountain until at least 1967. The sorted ore was reportedly shipped to a retort facility in Anchorage, Alaska for processing.
The mining claims on Marsh Mountain and the mill site claim on the Wood River were declared Abandoned and Void by BLM in 1985. Mr. Wren appealed the decision to the Interior Board of Land Appeals (IBLA). In 1988 the IBLA denied the appeal for all but the mill site claim. The mill site claim was declared Abandoned and Void by BLM in 1994.
During 1992 local residents with assistance from Greenpeace Alaska requested assistance from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC) to clean up the Site. BLM became aware of oil and mercury contamination at the Site shortly thereafter when notified by the ADEC. The ADEC has assigned reckey #1992250928601 to the Site. BLM developed a sampling and analysis plan during 1993 and conducted site characterization, dismantling of the retort facility, and interim site remediation beginning in 1994. Work progressed in stages with some periods of inactivity. Mercury contaminated soil and retort faciity demolition debris were placed in lined totes (fish totes) and stacked within an onsite fenced compound. "Bunker C" grade fuel oil that had leaked from drums was excavated in placed in an onsite covered stockpile.
During spring of 1998, flooding of the Wood River prompted BLM to take emergency action to dispose of the wastes stockpiled on-site. Inspection of the site while the river was at flood stage showed that the flood water did not rise high enough to submerge the bottom layer of mercury waste storage totes. That fall, all of the mercury and oil contaminated soils and the retort facility debris were removed from the Site. The materials were loaded on a barge, taken to Dillingham. AK and then shipped to appropriate disposal facilities in Wisconsin and Oregon.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) placed the Site on the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liabilities Act (CERCLA) Federal Agency Hazardous Waste Compliance Docket (Docket) on June 27, 1997. The EPA ID Number assigned for the Site is AK0001413822. BLM submitted a CERCLA Preliminary Assessment (PA) for the Site to EPA on December 31, 1998. EPA notified BLM on September 10, 1999 that after evaluating the PA and Remedial Action reports, the Hazard Ranking System scoring was not high enough for the Site to be listed on the National Priorities List. The Docket now reflects a No Further Remedial Action Planned status for the Site.
After the 1999 EPA decision BLM worked to resolve ADEC’s outstanding concerns about the Site. While the retort facility and a large volume of mercury and oil contaminated soils have been excavated and removed from the Site, some residual mercury contamination remains. BLM conducted additional investigations at the Site during 1999-2002 and resolved cost recovery issues with ADEC after that. In 2005 ADEC presented BLM with a final set of six requirements to gain Conditional Closure of the Site. During 2007 BLM conducted field work to accomplish three of those requirements, including demonstrating that ground water and the Wood River are not being contaminated by residual mercury at the Site. Remaining to be accomplished are negotiating Institutional Controls for an approximately 2,700 square foot area around where the retort was located, followed by public notice of the Conditional Closure decision. After the land is conveyed, BLM will need to periodically monitor the Site for perhaps 20 or more years as required by CERCLA, and the new land owners will need to comply with the Institutional Controls regarding land uses. As an alternative to gaining Conditional Closure, removal of additional mercury contaminated soil from the site to meet ADEC's most stringent cleanup level would allow complete closure of the site, eliminating the need to for Institutional Controls and allowing BLM to convey the land without need for long-term monitoring.
During 2011 BLM contracted with North Wind Services, LLC to develop and execute an ADEC approved work plan to conduct final cleanup of the RTRS. Thirty-nine cubic yards of mercury contaminated soil were removed from the RTRS and properly disposed of at facility in the lower-48. Confirmation sampling of the excavated area demonstrates that cleanup of the RTRS has achieved ADEC's most stringent cleanup standard; on March 13, 2012 ADEC granted "Cleanup Complete" status for the RTRS. With this determination the land is now available for conveyance with unrestricted use to Aleknagik Natives Limited (surface estate) and Bristol Bay Native Corporation (subsurface estate).