Federal environmental regulators have signaled they will issue a permit to the state's largest mine, the Red Dog zinc and lead mine, one needed to keep it operating for another 20 years.
The stakes couldn't be higher for Red Dog's owners. The mine's open pit has been mined for 20 years -- transforming the regional economy in the process -- but it is nearly played out. The pit is on track to run out of ore in 2011.
Closure of Red Dog would ripple throughout the region, and even the state: It would trigger the loss of hundreds of jobs in a region with few private employers, of tax revenue that supports village schools and of millions of dollars in royalties circulated annually to Native corporations around the state.
To keep the mine alive, Teck Resources, the mine's operator, wants to dig a new pit next to the current one. That proposal to regulators touched off a two-year federal study of the mine's environmental impacts over the past 20 years and what those impacts could be if the new pit were built.
A few days ago, the federal Environmental Protection Agency published its study, after wading through hundreds of pages of public comments on a draft version of the document, filed by mine employees, village leaders, environmentalists and many others. EPA now says it plans to issue a new water-pollution-discharge permit to Red Dog -- one of the most critical of several state and federal actions needed to allow the mine to start its second open pit and stay open. Because of a change in state rules, that permit will be more lenient that than the current discharge permit.
The EPA is holding a 30-day period for people to weigh in before it issues the permit. The comment period ends Nov. 9.
Jim Kulas, Red Dog environmental manager, said the company hopes to obtain all the necessary permits by the end of the year so it can start preparing the new site for mining at the beginning of next year.
Environmental groups said this week they are still reviewing the EPA study and don't know yet if they'll challenge the agency's permit. Once the permit is issued, they'd have a 30-day deadline to file suit against it.
YEARS OF DEBATE
By issuing the new water-pollution permit, the EPA would replace an older permit that has been the source of much controversy and lawsuits against the mine.
Ever since it opened in 1989, Red Dog has chronically violated some of the water-quality standards in that permit.
Teck has sought to get those permit conditions eased, arguing to regulators that they were too strict. The company pointed out that the number of fish were increasing downstream from the mine, because the mine's treatment process had removed naturally occurring pollutants. But some residents of Kivalina, a nearby village, say their water supply has been harmed. The permit allowed the mine to discharge its wastewater in Red Dog Creek, a tributary of the Wulik River, the source of Kivalina's drinking water. Some village residents aren't convinced by Teck's routine monitoring results that haven't shown harmful amounts of pollutants from the mine in their water supply.
Red Dog's pollution discharges disrupted the peace of mind in Kivalina, said Enoch Adams, a village leader and one of several who sued the mine over its water-quality violations in Red Dog Creek.
A NEW DEAL
Teck has worked out a legal settlement with Adams and others who had sued over Red Dog's permit violations. Within 30 days of the EPA's new water-pollution permit being finalized -- and clear of potential lawsuits -- Red Dog has agreed to apply for a new permit to route its wastewater to the ocean through a proposed multimillion-dollar pipeline, addressing the village's pollution concerns.
"That is going to be a great day for us," said Adams.
For now, Red Dog plans to use the new EPA permit to continue discharging its wastewater into Red Dog Creek.
EPA regulators have said the mine's chronic water violations should end because Red Dog will be able to meet the less-stringent standards of the new permit. Federal and state regulators say the new standards -- codified in state law several years ago -- will not harm aquatic life.
Several environmental groups have written comment letters to the EPA, arguing that it's illegal for the agency to loosen the water-quality requirements in Red Dog's permit.
It looks like the EPA and state regulators conspired to "create the weakest permit possible" to keep Teck happy, according to one comment from the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment, a California-based environmental law firm that represented Adams and other Kivalina residents in their now-settled suit against the mine.
Teck will have to apply for a slew of new permits to discharge its waste into the ocean. Until a pipeline is built, the company has agreed to pay for water filtration in Kivalina households.
Find Elizabeth Bluemink online at adn.com/contact/ebluemink or call 257-4317.