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Despite fine, Red Dog Mine opts out of building wastewater pipeline

Suzanna Caldwell
Treated effluent from Red Dog Mine is released back into Red Dog Creek.
Joshua Saul photo

Operators of the Red Dog Mine will pay an $8 million civil penalty after opting to not build a water pipeline that would have moved treated wastewater from the Northwest Alaska mine to the Chukchi Sea.

The decision comes on the heels of a $1.7 million study the mine’s operator, Teck Resources Ltd., conducted following a 2008 settlement agreement and consent decree litigated under the federal Clean Water Act.

As part of the settlement for violating the law, the company looked at creating a pipeline that would direct its effluent water from the zinc and lead concentrate mine 52 miles west to the Chukchi Sea instead of its current terminus in Red Dog Creek.

Red Dog Creek flows into the Wulik River, which supplies water to Kivalina, the village of about 370 people 70 miles west of the mine.

The company explored multiple options with the pipeline but ending up opting out after it became clear there was no feasible option, according to Red Dog Mine spokesman Wayne Hall.

Hall said the company was not able to construct an underground water pipeline because there is too much ground movement in the area due to permafrost. An above-ground pipeline had its challenges as well. Hall said it would need to be at least 7 feet tall in order to protect migrating caribou. That made for high costs -- the pipeline was expected to cost about $216 million.

“Ultimately, we decided there just wasn’t any increased benefit,” Hall said. “What we’re doing discharging into Red Dog Creek is protective of human health.”

The $8 million covers the civil penalty in connection  with not building the pipeline.

Hall said the creek has seen environmental improvements since the mine began treating its effluent water. Previously, the minerals from the ore body made it into the river, creating an inhospitable environment for aquatic life. Since the mine began treating its effluent, the creek’s water quality has improved, Hall said, noting that research from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and University of Alaska Fairbanks supports this.

He also noted that Environmental Protection Agency and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation have both approved permits for the mine in recent years, indicating the mine is meeting safe water requirements.

“They wouldn’t issue us a permit that wasn’t protective of human health and the environment,” Hall said.

Native Village of Kivalina President Millie Hawley, reached in Kivalina on Friday, called the mine’s decision “disappointing,” though she said the community was still processing the decision.

“(The pipeline) would have been an ideal solution to our concerns that we have voiced over the past 25 years,” she said.

She hopes the mine will continue to have conversations with the tribes and other community leaders to communicate the full reason behind the decisions.