“We were hoping as we got more detailed studies maybe this wouldn’t be as bad as we thought. But I’m not going to sugarcoat this. This isn’t good news.”
Inyo National Forest Supervisor Tammy Randall-Parker said the above at a presentation to disgruntled Mill City tract cabin owners at a public meeting held in mammoth’s U.S. Forest Service auditorium on Saturday, November 16.
Mammoth Mill is “an 1870’s former gold processing facility located in the town of Mammoth Lakes.
At some point, “the Forest Service permitted a Mill City cabin tract,” which was to be “located immediately adjacent to and down the slope of the Mill Area. There are currently fourteen recreational cabins within the cabin tract,” according to a Forest Service handout.
In early 2014, the USFS began testing sites around the mill as well as the main mill tailings. It found elevated levels of arsenic, lead and mercury in the immediate area.
After a few years and multiple rounds of testing, the Forest Service came to the conclusion that the, “Selected response action to address human health risks was excavation and offsite disposal of approximately 9,554 cubic yards (5.92 acres) of contaminated material from the mill site and cabins area.”
This meant that cabin owners had to temporarily vacate their properties.
According to the fact sheet, “the Forest Service closure order was renewed in May 2019, and will remain in effect until site cleanup efforts are complete.”
The USFS also found that the contaminated area is bigger than previously thought and one of the proposed solutions calls for a cleanup, “projected to cost $8.8 million to remove over 14,000 cubic yards of impacted soil.”
Other solutions proposed: Alternative 1: “No Action”, which would cost around $600,000 over a thirty year period and would leave the cabin owners with “5 days a year of occupancy.”
Alternative 2: “Minor Grading and Onsite Encapsulation”, which would import two feet of clean soil to the project site and suggest removal of 935 trees. This alternative costs $5.75 million over a thirty year period which does not include the Mill Site cleanup worth an estimated $4 million.
Alternative 3: “Selective Hotspot Excavation” with either onsite or offsite disposal which came with an estimated thirty year cost of between $3.4-4.4 million. This would contemplate a partial cleanup of the area and allow cabin owners 182 days a year of occupancy.
Alternative 4 was the previously described soil removal estimated at $8.8 million.
Who pays for this cleanup? As of now, the answer is no one.
The USFS has been working on PRP (potential responsible party) settlement negotiations to determine financial responsibility. According to Dennis Geiser, a regional Environmental Engineer working on the project, “PRP settlement negotiators notified Union Bank (a prior owner of the property) that it could be financially responsible, but we are being stonewalled by them.”
The reason for this is Union Bank likely thinks they are not liable and knows the Forest Service would have to take legal action to hold them responsible. Essentially they are calling a bluff from the Forest Service.
After rounds of questioning, Geiser finally admitted, “Any party that is deemed responsible could be held financially responsible.” This incited one member of the audience to blurt out, “So we, the victims of this, could be forced to pay for the cleanup?” , to which Geiser answered reluctantly, “Yes, it is possible.”
Earlier in the presentation, Noelle Graham-Wakoski, the Regional On-Scene Coordinator, explained that because contaminated soil was found intermittently throughout the site, it was probably not a spill that ran down the site but rather many different instances of people (cabin owners or cabin builders) moving the soil in an unnatural manner.
This hypothetically could mean the cabin owners are responsible but Mark Carney, a cabin owner and an attorney representing a subset of the owners shot this down quickly. “Good luck blaming the victims in a court.” he said.
Carney went on, stating, “It is 30 months after the closure board contacted us, and at that time (april-may 2017) they told us it would be done by November 2017.”
On Feb, 2, 2018 Carney wrote a letter to representatives of the Forest Service, including Randall-Parker and Geiser, where he laid out twenty questions that he had. There was no response due to the ongoing PRP negotiations. Eventually, Carney spoke on the phone with multiple representatives from the Forest Service and a team of lawyers.
“Last fall we knew that you guys didn’t have the money for the cleanup and the PRP was stiff arming us.” said Carney.
Carney then wrote another letter in January of 2019 to see if his assumptions still held true.
Some of those key assumptions include:
-Union Bank is stiff arming PRP
-Union Bank would not be responsible to clean up mill city tract
-Cost to clean up tract would have to come from other sources
-Cost to clean up tract exceeds $5 million
-Cost to clean up everything (Mill and tract) will exceed $10 million
-The Forest Service uses an average of $12-15 million a year on cleanups (nationwide). This project would have to compete for funding.
-The project could take up to seven years to receive the funding necessary for cleanup (based on conservative estimates of how much they could receive every year)
-Mammoth mill would be cleaned up before or concurrently with tract
-Most of the trees would have to be removed
-Cabins could still be removed despite all of this
Geiser was not at liberty to say whether the assumptions were true or not, but she nodded along as Carney laid his points out. All of Carney’s assumptions led to his proposal:
The viable solution (according to a subset of cabin owners) is to relocate the cabins
Cost to relocate cabins would be diminous [sic] in comparison to cleanup proposal ($5-10 million)
The relocation would take the cabins to the Mill city campground site
Which leads to the Forest Service providing a study on the feasibility of Mill City campground site. If infeasible, review and analyze land holdings to find a viable relocation site.
these bullets may be better as a paragraph)
Carney and the cabin owners he represented wanted their cabins to be moved from the site so they wouldn’t have to deal with the red tape surrounding a Forest Service cleanup of the arsenic, lead and mercury in question.
Randall-Parker explained that they could go forward with an option like this if every cabin owner supported it and not just the ones Carney represented. She was pessimistic at the Forest Service’s ability to secure the funds necessary for moving the cabins, essentially saying that if they wanted this option to be done they would have to pay for it themselves.
The meeting ended with neither side happy with the lack of solution. The next step for the Forest Service is to “further define the extent of contamination and if contamination exists beneath and immediately adjacent to the cabins.” It is likely they follow part of Carney’s proposal and determine the feasibility of the Mill city campground site at the same time. But, like everything revolving the timeline of this project, there are no guarantees.