Native villages appeal EPA permit for Red Dog Mine

CLEAN WATER ACT: Group says company is allowed to exceed standards.

January 15, 2010 

Two Alaska Native villages near the world's largest zinc mine are challenging the mine's water-discharge permit.

The Native villages of Kivalina and Point Hope are appealing the state's certification of the Red Dog Mine permit issued Jan. 8 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The villages allege that it violates the federal Clean Water Act and the state's water-quality standards.

State and federal regulators will allow Red Dog to discharge a larger amount of one type of water pollutant than is usually permitted in Alaska. The pollutant, called total dissolved solids, is tiny particles of rock or other solid matter. The agencies contend that the new discharge limit for total dissolved solids is not toxic.

But village residents are concerned that water discharged under the permit would put their health at risk.

"This new permit is a license to pollute," said Enoch Adams of Kivalina.

The village supports economic development, but it is very concerned how toxic chemicals, including cyanide and ammonia, are affecting drinking water and fish near the mine, he said.

State officials contend that the ammonia and cyanide discharges will not increase in the new permit, and aren't harming aquatic life.

Jim Kulas is environmental and public affairs manager for Teck Alaska Inc., the company that runs the mine. He said state and federal agencies recently completed a review of water-quality issues at Red Dog and concluded the operation is safe.

"Based on years of data documenting a healthy downstream environment, in the agencies' judgment, the permit will be fully protective of human health and the environment," he said.

Kulas said if the appeal results in a permitting delay extending beyond the first quarter of this year, production at Red Dog likely would be reduced or interrupted.

Teck Alaska is a subsidiary of Teck Resources Ltd., a diversified mining company headquartered in Vancouver, Canada. NANA Regional Corp., an Alaska Native corporation, owns the Red Dog land.

Teck Alaska applied for a new federal discharge permit to expand its mining into a new pit that it would dig next to the original pit, which is running out of ore. The mine produces zinc, lead and silver. It has been in operation since 1989 and is the biggest private employer in the area.

The permit allows so-called mixing zones so Red Dog can continue to put mining wastewater directly into the Wulik River, a stream that residents use for drinking water and food, said Trish Rolfe, executive director of the law firm Trustees for Alaska.

Teck officials say that the mine has never violated water quality standards in the Wulik.

Rolfe said the mixing zones are being allowed so Red Dog does not continue to violate its federal water-discharge permit.

The mine is along Red Dog Creek, which flows into Ikalukrok Creek and the Wulik River, which is used by the city of Kivalina for drinking water, according to groups challenging the permit.

The new permit amounts to a relaxing of standards, said Pam Miller, executive director of Alaska Community Action on Toxics.

Daily News reporter Elizabeth Bluemink contributed to this story.

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