The Red Dog Mine, 17 years after startup, is unquestionably the economic and human resources success story of the Northwest Arctic Borough. Zinc and lead prices are strong, and production is up at the mine, which is operated by Teck Cominco Alaska on lands owned by the Alaska Native regional corporation, NANA Regional Corp.
But the world’s largest producer of zinc concentrate continues to be plagued by issues surrounding its discharge of wastewater.
Treated water from the mine is released into tributaries of the Wulik River, which provides drinking water for Kivalina, a Northwest Alaska village 66 miles downstream from the mine.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a new five-year wastewater discharge permit for the mine in March, but it was soon challenged under the Clean Water Act by a San Francisco environmental group on behalf of some residents of Kivalina.
The appeal marked the second time the Center for Race, Poverty and the Environment has challenged Red Dog’s wastewater discharge permit. The group initiated a citizen’s suit against Teck Cominco Alaska in March 2004. NANA and the Northwest Arctic Borough subsequently joined the suit as defendants in support of Teck Cominco.
An Anchorage court recently found that Teck Cominco did not meet the total dissolved solids, or “TDS,” requirements of its 1998 discharge permit at Red Dog even though the TDS amount discharged was within the limit authorized by the EPA. Further, the amount of TDS discharged by Red Dog meets water quality standards for TDS adopted by the State of Alaska and approved by EPA since 1998.
New TDS standards have been incorporated into permits issued for Red Dog by EPA since the ruling.
Red Dog operations go onThe latest appeal does not prevent Teck Cominco from operating Red Dog. Instead, the mining company can continue to treat discharges under an older, modified permit until the EPA rules on the appeal.
The EPA Region 10 administrator is currently examining the new permit to determine which of its conditions were challenged in the appeal.
Once that determination is complete, the issue will go before an EPA internal review board in Washington, D.C. Permit conditions not included in the appeal can become effective immediately.
The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation also has begun the process of certifying the new permit under state water quality standards.
Operations at Red Dog, meanwhile, must go on.
“We would rather have the new permit, but we’ll still be able to treat and discharge water under the old one,” Jim Kulas, environmental superintendent at Red Dog, said June 14.
Wulik River cleaner than everTeck Cominco has repeatedly assured Kivalina residents that continuous monitoring of the village’s drinking water, conducted by federal and state agencies including the Alaska Division of Public Health, since 2002 have found no unacceptable results.
“The quality of the drinking water downstream of the mine is being protected,” Kulas said. “Each of the tests has shown the water is safe to drink, and there are no problems with TDS.”
Ironically, the water downstream from Red Dog is actually cleaner today then it was before the mine started production 17 years ago, said Tom Crafford, acting director of the Division of Mining, Land and Water in the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.
“There is nothing about Red Dog that is simple. There are fish living in places where they didn’t live before. The natural runoff from the undeveloped Red Dog zinc and lead deposit put more pollution into the water before than the wastewater treatment process does now,” Crafford explained. “But at the same time, the mine has to treat and discharge water. The treatment process uses chemicals such as calcium and magnesium, which result in a higher amount of total dissolved solids in the water, which have issues of their own.”