A new federal study says the state's largest mine likely caused reduced caribou and beluga harvests by nearby villagers.
The harvests in the subsistence-dependent village of Kivalina declined substantially after the Red Dog zinc and lead mine opened 20 years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency said in the draft report on the mine's impact on the environment.
For decades, Kivalina hunters have blamed the daily traffic on the 52-mile industrial road connecting the mine to its port, as well as ship traffic at the port, for changing animal migrations and causing hunting problems. The Chukchi Sea port lies 17 miles southeast of the village in Northwest Alaska.
In a section of the 650-page report, the EPA said it agrees with the villagers.
The report is out for public comment through next Tuesday and it is stirring up controversy. Its conclusions about the mine harming subsistence hunting are being questioned by mining officials, state biologists and NANA Regional Corp., the Native corporation that owns the land the mine sits on.
They say the biological data is sketchy and the decline in harvests could be caused by other factors.
Another village, Noatak, 40 miles south of Red Dog, has also experienced declining caribou harvests. But many of its hunters blame increased sport hunting pressure rather than the mine, according to the EPA study.
Opponents of the giant copper and gold Pebble prospect in Southwest Alaska are "absolutely" interested in the study's findings, said Terry Hoefferle, who runs a Dillingham-based Native organization, Nunamta Aulukestai, opposed to the Pebble project. Villages in Southwest Alaska also depend on caribou and they are concerned about potential noise effects from mineral exploration, he said. Pebble could be a much bigger mine than Red Dog.
The federal review was required because the Red Dog mine, about 50 miles east of Kivalina, is seeking permits to keep operating for another 20 years. The mine employs about 450 people, about half of them Native shareholders from the region, and is the largest private employer in the region. The subsistence analysis was requested by villagers, EPA officials said.
In its study, the agency suggested ways that the mine could address the potential disruption to animals -- delaying the shipping season or shutting down the road during migrations, for example. Another idea: Build three 52-mile pipelines to carry ore, wastewater and fuel. Then, the road could be shut down permanently, also addressing the mine's problem with metal-laden dust, EPA officials said.
But EPA officials said they lack the legal authority to require the mine to take those steps.
Kivalina is located at the tip of an eroding eight-mile-long peninsula. It is one of the most impoverished villages in the Northwest Arctic region, according to the U.S. Census, and it has long had a complicated relationship with the mine. About 12 of the 389 residents work at Red Dog, according to the EPA. Years ago, several residents sued the mine over its thousands of water quality violations. That lawsuit was recently settled, and village leaders now are supporting the company's study of a massive 52-mile pipeline to carry its wastewater to the ocean.
The mine discharges its treated wastewater into a small stream that eventually flows into the village's water supply, the Wulik River.
While EPA officials agree that subsistence likely has been hurt in Kivalina, they say regular testing shows that the mine has not harmed the village's drinking water supply. The mine has actually improved the downstream water quality, allowing fish to flourish in an area that was once uninhabitable because of the natural seepage of toxic metals, according to the draft report.
In the early 1980s, Kivalina's caribou harvest ranged from 179 pounds to 280 pounds per capita. In 1992 the harvest was much lower: 138 pounds. In 2007 it was 85 pounds.
Beluga harvests also have decreased. In the early 1980s, residents got 159 to 166 usable pounds of beluga per capita. In 1992 and 2007, they harvested only 29 pounds and 51 pounds respectively.
Kivalina residents surveyed last year mainly blamed their reduced harvest on the mine's road -- every day the mine is operating, massive trucks carry ore concentrate 52 miles to the port for storage and then shipment to Outside smelters.
"We've had differences in the routes that the caribou take now," said Austin Swan Sr., a Kivalina hunter, this week.
Now caribou remain farther away from the village and the residents must hunt for them in different places and at different times of year, he said. The same goes for beluga, which avoid the port, he said.
He said that local hunters have adapted, much as they've adapted to natural changes in the environment. "I don't know that it's really a big problem any more," he said.
But others in the village wonder what 20 additional years of Red Dog production will mean for them.
"Maybe everything will change again," said local whaling captain Oran Knox.
The EPA's finding on subsistence harvest is a sticking point for mining and Native corporation officials who are -- for the most part -- satisfied with the report's major findings.
"Overall we feel the agency has done a very thorough review," said Jim Kulas, the mine's environmental manager.
But as far as any impacts on subsistence foods, "we do not feel (the mine) has had that effect," he said. The company stops its trucks on the road when the caribou are spotted, he said. Also Red Dog doesn't begin its ore shipments until it gets a "go-ahead" from a subsistence advisory committee composed of residents from the region, he said.
NANA officials also track subsistence in the region and are questioning the EPA's linkage of the mine to harvest declines.
"We want to ensure the road doesn't impact harvest for our shareholders but we also want to be sure (the EPA) is looking at objective data," said Rosie Barr, NANA's resources manager.
She said beluga hunts, for example, are declining throughout the region, not just near the port. Caribou harvests have also been variable in the region, she said.
State biologists involved in some of the work used for EPA's subsistence review are also skeptical of the finding, saying they don't think their work supports it.
"The connection is always tenuous when you look at cause and effect," said Jim Simon, a regional subsistence program manager for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, based in Fairbanks.
"It's very difficult to understand all the various factors that contribute to population effects," Simon said.
"I'm not aware of anything in our research that the mine has contributed directly to declining harvests," he said.
EPA said it looked at a lot of the evidence and found impacts from the mine a likely explanation.
In Kivalina veteran hunters say the impact of the mine traffic on their hunts is obvious.
"Of course that will happen with a transportation corridor. That is to be expected," Swan said.
Find Elizabeth Bluemink online at adn.com/contact/ebluemink or call 257-4317.
By ELIZABETH BLUEMINK