The best view of Red Dog Mine, the world's second-biggest zinc mine, is from the west edge of the main pit. From there I could see down into the mine's past in the form of that main pit the size of a deep mountain valley. A white pipe, which diverts Red Dog Creek around the pit, was a physical reminder of the conflict that sometimes surrounds the mine.
But the most important part of the view I got, standing on the west edge of Red Dog Mine, was of a grassy hilltop across the open pit. Inside that hill is the Aqqaluk deposit, a rich deposit of zinc that represents the next 20 years of work for the mine.
"This summer is going to be exceptionally busy," said Ted Zigarlick, the mine's loss control superintendent. He wears cowboy boots and has worked at the mine since it started 22 years ago. "We're going to be as busy as we were back in 1988."
Red Dog Mine was discovered in 1968 by a bush pilot who flew overhead, noticed red mineral stains in the creek, and named the area after his canine co-pilot. In 2009 Teck Alaska, the company that owns Red Dog, pulled just under a billion dollars' worth of zinc out of the mine. (NANA Regional Corp. Inc. owns the land on which Red Dog sits.)
But the main pit, the one Teck has been banking on for over 20 years, is tapped out. The company said by 2011 there'd be no zinc left. But above the main pit, in a hill the size of a mountain thanks to the hole that's been dug at its foot, is the Aqqaluk deposit.
Red Dog is a rich mine. It has to be -- that's the only way anybody could make any money mining out in Northwest Alaska, 46 miles from the Chukchi Sea, where power comes from pricey diesel fuel instead of power lines and getting the zinc to market requires an odyssey -- trucking the ore to the coast, where it sits in storage until the ice-free months, when it can be shipped to market.
Aqqaluk isn't quite as rich as the deposit Red Dog has been mining for the past two decades (about 20 percent zinc compared to Aqqaluk's 17 percent) but it's still high compared to the mines Red Dog competes against.
One of Red Dog's competitors is a mine owned by the mining company Vedanta in northwest India, which passed Red Dog recently to become the world's largest zinc mine. Yeah, that stung a little, said Jim Kulas, Red Dog's manager of environmental and public affairs. (Vedanta also recently bought some zinc mines off Anglo American, the company trying to develop the Pebble Mine in southwest Alaska.)
Dean Searson, a Red Dog millwright I spoke with over beef chimichangas in the mine's cafeteria, said that with most mines it takes two to three years to dig down to where the mine is actually producing zinc. But Red Dog is so rich, Searson said, smiling, that with Aqqaluk they'll hit pay dirt in six months. Next year a third of the ore mined at Red Dog will come from Aqqaluk.
While the region largely supports Red Dog and the development of Aqqaluk, some villagers resent the mine for the water it discharges into Red Dog Creek. But even those who blame the mine for killing fish still appreciate the jobs and money the mine brings to the area.
"We've never tried to shut it down," said Enoch Adams, who lives in Kivalina, a village on the Wulik River, which is fed by Red Dog Creek. Adams said the mine has killed fish, and villagers boat six miles away to a different river for drinking water so they're not drinking from the Wulik while the mine is discharging water. Still, his sister works at the mine and he thinks Red Dog has been a huge help to the region.
That's a big part of the reason residents of Kivalina want a pipeline built to carry Red Dog's wastewater all the way from the mine to the Chukchi Sea -- so none of it gets into the streams or creeks that feed the rivers the village depends on. The pipeline was part of a settlement reached between Teck and five Kivalina residents (including Adams).
"So for me, if the pipeline is built, all our problems with the river go away," Adams said.
That pipeline would really be a long extension, running all the way to the Chukchi Sea, of the pipe I could see from the west edge of the main pit. (Though the theoretical pipeline is required by the settlement, some Kivalina residents fear it will never be built.)
The pipe picks up Red Dog Creek south of the mine, carries it around so no metals contaminate its waters, and then deposits it north of the mine so it can continue on to its confluence with the Wulik River and flow on towards Kivalina.
Red Dog's past, its success and its conflict, are important not just because of what they say about Alaska's history but because they inform decisions about the state's future. Another mega-project, the proposed Pebble Mine, is in the middle of the permit wrangling process Red Dog went through in the 1980s.
Vicki Clark is the legal director of Trustees for Alaska, an organization that has filed lawsuits aiming to block the development of the Pebble project. Besides noting that Red Dog was developed back when people didn't understand what the environmental impacts a mine could have, Clark thinks Pebble would run into the same fish and water quality concerns Red Dog has encountered.
"At this point Red Dog certainly has plenty of issues, and they're illustrative of the kind of things that could come up for Pebble," she said.
John Shively is the CEO of the Pebble Partnership right now, but when Red Dog was first getting started he was a vice president at NANA. Shively said he sees a lot of similarities between Red Dog and Pebble, especially in that both regions need jobs.
"To me, the nexus is that you've got a project in a location where people don't have very many economic opportunities," Shively said.
Chuck Barger is a shift manager from Noatak. He's worked at Red Dog for nine years. It wasn't much fun wondering whether the mine would be able to move on to Aqqaluk, he said, or whether he'd have to find another job.
"One of my relief supervisors called me at 5 a.m. and said ‘We got the permit,'" Barger remembered. "'We got dozers heading out right now.'"
So while the road up to Aqqaluk is being built, mining in the main pit continues. Around noon on Monday, I watched as a signal was given and the trucks emptied out of the pit. After a five-minute warning, on the floor of the mine, a mixture of ammonia nitrate and diesel fuel was touched off and tons of rock blasted apart. A thick cloud of gray dust rose almost to the lip of the mine. The dust settled, and the trucks descended back into the pit, ready to haul out another load.
Contact Joshua Saul at jsaul(at)alaskadispatch.com.