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Our view: Red Dog, take two

Teck Alaska and NANA, the Native regional corporation, want to keep the Red Dog zinc and lead mine going for another 20 years.

They should get the permits to do so.

Federal and state agencies should have the permitting decisions made by the middle of December.

Red Dog -- one of the world's largest suppliers of zinc concentrate -- will play out in 2011 without opening up the Aqqaluk deposit. With Aqqaluk, Red Dog can operate until 2031, according to Jim Kulas, Teck's manager of environmental and public affairs.

BIG UPSIDE

Benefits for Teck are clear. Production of zinc and lead concentrates on a world-class scale is lucrative business. Teck earned $1.4 billion in 2007, a banner year for zinc prices. World markets should remain strong for both metals.

Benefits for NANA, Northwest Alaska and the rest of the state are clear as well. As Teck's partner and the mine's landowner, NANA profits from the mine. The corporation's 25 percent share of profits totaled $212 million. The other 12 Native corporations shared $112 million of that.

Teck is the Northwest Arctic Borough's only taxpayer, and contributes about $10 million a year to the borough, money that has been used for schools and other services.

What's most striking about Teck's impact, however, is the jobs it provides to the region. In 2008, about 60 percent of the 569 jobs at the mine were done by NANA shareholders, most of whom are local people. That share of a $51 million payroll provides a steady economic engine -- an element lacking in much of rural Alaska, and an element necessary for rural Alaska to thrive in the 21st century.

At the same time, NANA's agreement with Teck requires that the partnership protect and respect subsistence needs, local concerns, Native culture and traditions.

RISKS AND CHALLENGES

It's been a daunting challenge -- develop an open-pit strip mine, build a transportation system with a road and port and storage, divert a creek, manage wastewater, control toxic dust and air pollution where none existed before and at the same time preserve and protect wildlife and Native ways.

Teck and NANA have met that challenge to a large degree, although it's still a work in progress -- and that progress needs careful monitoring by state and federal watchdogs.

Teck had to settle a suit with residents of Kivalina, one of the region's villages, who claimed the mine was fouling their drinking water. Teck agreed to install filtration systems in every village home and eventually to build a pipeline to carry its wastewater into the Chukchi Sea. (That will require a separate set of environmental assessments and permits).

Earlier this year, Teck agreed to pay $120,000 in fines assessed by the Environmental Protection Agency for wastewater violations and spills at the port. Though none of the violations was considered major, and Teck was up front in reporting what it was doing, the fines were a reminder that thorough inspections and strict enforcement are vital in ensuring a mining operation doesn't foul its nest.

Another reminder came from the EPA's conclusion this year that it was likely that the mining operation contributed to the decline of caribou and beluga whale populations -- although NANA, Teck and state officials disputed that assessment.

On the plus side, water treatment and channeling of Red Dog Creek have returned fish to what had been essentially a dead stream due to the natural leaching of the metals.

RECORD OF SUCCESS

Mining is an invasive business, and Red Dog is no exception. What mining engineers call "overburden," others call the ground as nature made it. Stewardship will never be perfect.

But the Red Dog mine has provided a good living where livelihoods can be hard to come by -- and a partnership by which Alaskans can blend the security of regular employment with the seasons of subsistence.

It's a delicate balance -- hence the need for state and federal regulators to keep a close watch on the mine. But on balance, Red Dog is a success that deserves another 20 years.

BOTTOM LINE: Red Dog should keep on mining.