Our view: Red flag at Red Dog

The recent settlement by Teck Alaska over wastewater discharge violations at its Red Dog Mine and port near Kotzebue testifies to both the value of the Clean Water Act and the risk inherent in world-class mining operations.

For Alaskans, the settlement underscores doubts about the wisdom of exploiting the Pebble prospect, which has world-class gold and copper deposits near the headwaters of some of Bristol Bay's richest salmon streams.

We're told Alaska has strong mining laws that will ensure Pebble is benign. Experience with Red Dog suggests those laws have failed to prevent significant trouble.

In Teck's agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency, Teck admitted no wrongdoing but agreed to pay a $120,000 fine for alleged wastewater discharge violations at its zinc and lead mining facilities.

The violations stemmed from a standard seven-day inspection in 2006 that found Teck wrongly diluted wastewater with water from a freshwater reservoir, thus spoiling required samples, and also spilled treated water on the tundra at its port facility on the Chukchi Sea.

Jim Kulas, manager of environmental and public affairs for the Red Dog Mine, said the dilution complaints stemmed from a misunderstanding over allowable procedures, and said the tundra spills were of treated water and did no harm.

"It's clear to us now that's not allowed," Kulas said of the dilution complaints. As for the spills near the port, "permit conditions are pretty straightforward. Thou shalt not."

So Red Dog is square with the EPA.

But here's the rub. No mine -- or any other industrial operation -- is going to run flawlessly, even with the best training and intentions and vigilant enforcement. Misunderstandings like the one Kulas mentioned may have done little or no harm at Red Dog. But a misunderstanding in pollution discharge procedures anywhere near vital salmon streams that flow into Bristol Bay could have consequences beyond the power of any consent agreement to rectify.

In 2008, the Clean Water initiative sought to block new large-scale metal mine discharges in any way that would harm people or spawning salmon. Foes argued that the measure was unnecessary. They said current law and permitting procedures suffice to protect Alaskans and their environment from harm.

After the mining industry and its allies spent at least $7 million campaigning against the initiative, 57 percent of Alaska voters agreed, and the initiative failed.

But shortly thereafter, Teck Alaska reached a pollution lawsuit settlement with Kivalina residents. Teck agreed to build a 55-mile wastewater pipeline from the mine to the port so that Red Dog wouldn't discharge treated wastewater into the Wulik River, which the village uses for drinking water. (That pipeline depends on the mine expansion; without the expansion, Kulas said, Teck can't afford the pipeline).

To satisfy villagers until such a line is built, Teck agreed to install water filtration systems in every home and pay to maintain them.

Why? If our laws ensure Alaska's environment is so well-protected, why do residents near this mine need filtration systems? Why a pipeline to the sea?

Even if Teck Alaska is going beyond what's necessary to keep water clean in order to maintain good will, such measures raise red flags for the Pebble prospect.

Mining has a long history in Alaska; it's here to stay. In 20 years, the Red Dog Mine has contributed about $1.3 billion to Alaska's economy, provided hundreds of jobs in a region where payroll jobs are few and become the world's largest supplier of zinc.

But Red Dog's history is both promise and warning -- and with Pebble, we need to heed the warning before we risk the world's richest salmon fishery on the promise.

BOTTOM LINE: In mining, even strict environmental standards don't guarantee good environmental results.