Mine loses battle over pollution discharge permit


MARY PEMBERTON / Associated Press Writer – http://www.adn.com/2010/03/26/1200643/mine-loses-battle-over-pollution.h...

Date of publication: 
26 March 2010

ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Alaska Natives living in two villages have won a battle against the world’s largest zinc mine over a permit they said would have polluted an important fish stream that provides food and drinking water.

The Native villages of Kivalina and Point Hope challenged the Red Dog Mine’s new water pollution discharge permit. The federal permit would have allowed more cyanide, zinc, selenium, lead and total dissolved solids into the Wulik River, villagers said.

Enoch Adams Jr., vice president of the Native Village of Kivalina, has called the permit a “license to pollute.” It was to become effective March 1.

Teck Alaska felt the permit worked on by the state and the Environmental Protection Agency was sound, Jim Kulas, the company’s environmental and public affairs manager, said Friday. If the permit issues can’t be resolved by October, plans will go forward to shut down the mining operation until they are, he said.

The villages’ native councils, five Kivalina residents and two conservation groups appealed the permit in February. After a review, the EPA decided March 17 that Teck Alaska will have to comply with more stringent levels under its 1998 permit at the mine in northeast Alaska.

“We will have a permit we can’t comply with,” Kulas said.

The mine, which is the largest employer in the area, sought the new permit in an effort to expand operations into another nearby deposit and extend the life of the mine perhaps 20 years. Mine operators say the main deposit will run out in mid-2011. The mine has operated since 1989 and provides about 475 full-time jobs.

“Our village wants economic development but at the same time we demand that EPA protect our subsistence and clean water rights,” Adams said. “The only thing we want is to be able to drink our water with some peace of mind … and not wonder what is in the fish.”

The state Department of Environmental Conservation, the agency that certified the permit, is reviewing it.

Red Dog has repeatedly topped the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory list, an annual compilation of toxic chemicals released by all industries in the U.S.

Lawyer Brent Newell with the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment in San Francisco, said Red Dog has violated its old permit hundreds of times.

The new permit would have given mine operators even more leeway, he said. Not only would it have allowed more cyanide, zinc, selenium and lead into waters downstream from the mine, but also would have drastically changed the way the mine handles total dissolved solids or wastewater from the mining operation, Newell said.

Instead of measuring total dissolved solids at the end of the pipe where the waste enters the Wulik River, Teck Alaska would have been allowed a four-mile “mixing zone” to test for pollution once it was diluted, he said.

That would have allowed high levels of dissolved solids to enter the river, an important spawning ground for fish, Newell said.

“That is really crazy,” Adams said.

In 2008, five Kivalina residents reached a settlement with Teck Alaska after a lengthy court fight that established over 800 violations of the federal Clean Water Act for discharging mine waste into the Wulik River, Newell said.

The village is about 45 miles downstream from the mine.

The settlement requires Teck to either build a pipeline to discharge treated mining waste into the Chuckchi Sea, instead of the river, or pay a multimillion dollar fine.

Adams said no one wants to shut down the mine.

“The only thing that we want is for them to build the pipeline,” Adams said. “We just want them to be responsible.”