Resource Development Council

EPA throws Red Dog a curve ball in permit dispute

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) threw the operator of the Red Dog Mine an unexpected curve ball in late March when it told Teck Alaska it can move forward with mining the adjacent Aqqaluk deposit under a contested permit issued in January, but that the company must comply with the water discharge limits set under a previous permit issued in 1998.

The unexpected decision regarding appealed conditions of the January permit is a problem for Teck, given the 1998 permit standards for total dissolved solids are so stringent that the company has never been able to comply with the limit. The dilemma Teck now faces is if it moves forward with Aqqaluk, it would find itself out of compliance with the unobtainable 1998 discharge limits.

The EPA had previously issued a compliance order that allowed Teck to discharge obtainable levels of total dissolved solids, but it did not protect the company from civil lawsuits. The company is now in discussions with the EPA to gain a better understanding of the implications of the EPA decision.

The EPA had determined that higher discharge limits in the January permit and the previous compliance order were fully protective of human health and the environment and were in line
with the Clean Water Act.

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 the mine’s effective water management practices and treatment, fish populations and aquatic productivity in the waters downstream from the mine have increased.

The January permit retains the improved water quality and protects fish, but that permit was appealed by environmental groups and village tribal councils from Kivalina and Point Hope. They argued the higher limits of the January permit violate the antibacksliding provisions of the federal law. They also claim the new water discharge standards would breach anti-degradation laws.

Red Dog has nearly exhausted the ore in its main pit and needs the federal permit to begin developing the Aqqaluk deposit in an adjacent second pit that can extend the mine’s life by 20 years. The mine may have to suspend production in October if issues surrounding the permit are not resolved soon. Halting production would severely impact the Northwest Alaska economy, the Northwest Arctic Borough and hundreds of local residents who depend on the
mine for their livelihood.

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