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Rural Alaska

After Red Dog spill, Kivalina issues Wulik River water advisory

  • Author: Jillian Rogers
  • Updated: September 29, 2016
  • Published June 20, 2014

Kivalina has issued a precautionary public health advisory for residents who utilize the Wulik River.

The precautionary advisory was issued last week and urges Kivalina residents not to drink water from the Wulik River or eat certain parts of fish caught in the river after an overflow incident at the Red Dog Mine, 70 miles west of the village.

On May 28, a culvert used to channel Red Dog Creek around the mine got clogged with ice. Water then spilled over the culvert onto the ground and continued on into Red Dog Creek, and eventually into the Wulik River.

Kivalina's city water supply is pumped from Wulik River in mid-summer, but the tanks are still full enough that running low is not a concern, said city administrator Janet Mitchell. People still collect water from the Wulik, however, and are currently fishing there.

Red Dog told Kivalina city officials that the incident is not cause for concern and that it did not affect the water, she said.

"To tell us that there is no cause for concern when elders and young children drink this water is unacceptable," Mitchell said last week. Mitchell, on behalf of the city, enlisted borough and state officials to help with testing the water and its aquatic life before the warning would be lifted.

"The council issued the precautionary notice without hesitation," said Mitchell, adding that the city was notified via an anonymous tip that "dirty pit water" had spilled into the creek.

What spilled onto the ground was not wastewater, but creek water, said Hall on Monday.

"The creek basically overflowed onto the ground and ran down the ground a ways and then we picked it up and put it back into that culvert system," Hall said. "There are no effects. We have real-time, in-stream monitoring downstream from there and … there are no effects on water quality, or concern for human or aquatic health."

Hall added that Red Dog recognizes that they failed to keep Kivalina residents informed after the incident.

"We're focusing on trying to provide information in a more timely fashion," he said.

According to the state's Department of Environmental Conservation, there is no chance that the incident would result in contamination of the water.

"They were monitoring (the water) downstream; their data didn't show that the quality of the water got affected at all," said Tim Pilon, an engineer with the DEC's Wastewater Discharge Authorization Program. "They weren't able to detect any kind of change of water quality."

Pilon added that Red Dog has acted to the letter following the incident. They notified DEC within 24 hours of the water diversion and submitted a written report within five days.

The amount of water from the mine that got into the river is a wild guess at best, Pilon said, adding that he has been following this particular incident "to the minute."

Meanwhile, Kivalina residents are urged to report any unusual activity in or around the river, Mitchell said.

"We've told people to keep processing their fish as usual, but to take precautions," she said. Precautions like not eating organ meat from fish caught in the Wulik, and using a different source for drinking water until the city is confident the water is safe. The water currently in the city's two holding tanks is not affected by the incident as it was pumped last year.

"They thought it wasn't serious enough to have a public health notice," Mitchell said. "But we do need to make sure that the water is suitable for consumption.

"The health and well-being of our people comes first. We are responsible for the water that people drink."

Kivalina has voiced its concern for more than two decades regarding the mine emptying treated wastewater into Red Dog Creek. Last week, Teck Resources, Ltd., the company that operates the mine, announced that it has opted to pay an $8 million penalty rather than build a pipeline that would carry treated wastewater away from Kivalina to the Chukchi Sea.

This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.

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