Environmental groups and village tribal councils from Kivalina and Point Hope are appealing a critical federal permit required for the Red Dog Mine in Northwest Alaska to continue operating. Red Dog is the largest mine in Alaska and is the foundation of the region’s economy, accounting for hundreds of jobs and the entire tax base of the Northwest Arctic Borough.
“There is no environmental benefit to the appeal,” said Rosie Barr, NANA’s resources manager. “However, this appeal is a direct threat to the social, cultural, environmental and economic benefits our shareholders receive from the mine and that is very troubling to us.” NANA owns the land the zinc, lead and silver deposit sits on.
Teck Alaska, the operator of Red Dog, said it may have to suspend production in October if issues surrounding the permit are not resolved by May. Once the mine is shut down, it would take at least 18 months to bring it back on line. Halting production would severely impact NANA, local residents who depend on the mine for their livelihood and the Northwest Arctic Borough.
Red Dog has nearly exhausted the ore in its main pit and needs a federal water discharge permit to begin developing the Aqqaluk deposit in an adjacent second pit that could extend the mine’s life by 20 years.
The EPA issued a revised water discharge permit in January which establishes more realistic water quality standards compared to the previous permit. Federal and state regulators said the new standards in the permit will be fully protective of human health and the environment. The previous standards were technically non-achievable when set.
Those parties pursuing the appeal claim that several parts of the permit do not comply with the Clean Water Act, even though the State certified the permit was compliant. Specific issues being appealed include mixing zones, effluent limitations, anti-degradation and treatment technology.
The groups opposing the permit claim water discharges from the mine would degrade Red Dog Creek, but 20 years of operations at the mine do not support such claims. A study conducted by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation concluded that treated water discharges from the mine has actually improved water quality in Red Dog Creek by diluting the naturally occurring acidic and metal-laden water.
Pre-mining surveys done in the area in the 1980s found no fish and other aquatic life in Red Dog Creek because of the toxic concentrations of naturally-occurring minerals in the water. However, because of effective water management practices and treatment, fish populations and aquatic productivity in the waters downstream from the mine have increased. Government regulators say the new permit would retain the improved water quality and protect fish.
Teck defended the regulatory process, calling it robust and appropriate.
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