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.
Return to newsletter headlines