Fairbanks News-Miner editorial on expansion at Red Dog Mine

The company that operates the Red Dog Mine said last week it will open a new pit next to the one it has mined since 1989. That’s good news for not only northwest Alaska but also the entire state. Without the Aqqaluk deposit, Red Dog’s remarkable run as one of the world’s largest zinc mines will be over within a year or two.

However, the obstacles thrown up against Teck Alaska Inc. as it worked toward this decision were bizarre. And some of those obstacles remain, so it might be too soon for anyone to declare that the mine is on safe ground.

The primary complaint about the Red Dog Mine is illegitimate. Environmental groups and some residents of Kivalina assert the mine is fouling the Wulik River, from which the people of Kivalina drink.

In fact, the mine has purified the water flowing into the Wulik River. Before the mine, Red Dog Creek naturally flowed across the lead-zinc deposit, picking up hundreds of thousands of pounds of toxic metals annually. No aquatic life survived in the creek. The contaminated water flowed into the Wulik River watershed, where it became well-diluted. So people from Kivalina, far downstream at the Bering Sea coast, drank this water from time immemorial, with no apparent ill effects.

Today, Red Dog Creek and the waters downstream are cleaner than ever. Metals in the water are measured in a few parts per billion. The creek meets the scientifically established water quality permit limits imposed by state and federal agencies.

Yet the lawsuits and administrative appeals continue because some people will not tolerate even the benign byproduct of the mine’s water treatment system, and the law is written so broadly that they can use it to pursue that end.

The byproduct is described in regulatory terms as “total dissolved solids.” In chemical terms, it is calcium sulfate. In everyday language, it’s gypsum, the chalky material in drywall. It comes from the lime that the mine uses to pull the metals out of the water. It’s not toxic.

State law generally limits total dissolved solids in discharged water to 500 to 1,000 parts per million in water. The mine, though, has not been able to bring the water in Red Dog Creek below 1,500 ppm, a level for which it received temporary approvals from regulators.

That level allowed all sorts of life to return to Red Dog Creek, including arctic grayling. The state, after two years of study, found that “calcium-dominated TDS levels up to 1,500 (ppm) would be protective during arctic grayling spawning.” 

But, technically, the discharge exceeded the general standards, so mine opponents continued to file lawsuits and appeals. Their legal actions finally forced the mine to agree to a far more environmentally damaging solution. In a 2008 settlement, Teck agreed to build a 60-mile pipeline to carry the mine’s water to the Bering Sea coast to be released into the ocean, where discharge standards are apparently lower.

This is mind-boggling. With high zinc prices, the mine might be able to afford such an extravagance. But the additional expense could force the mine to shut down if prices fall. Even if prices stay high, the cost will make it less feasible to mine more marginal parts of the ore deposit and therefore cause it to shut down much earlier than it otherwise might.

And for what? The pipe will carry the benign solids to the ocean, but some metals will continue to leach into Red Dog Creek — not because of anything the mine has done but simply through the rain and snow runoff across the shallow ore outside the mined area.

Earlier this winter, state and federal regulators proposed new water permits for the mine based on the new science. They established a site-specific 1,500 ppm standard for dissolved solids in Red Dog Creek and adopted new scientifically justified but slightly increased standards for metals in the water. And they continued to allow a “mixing zone,” so the water samples can be measured not in the discharge pipe (into which no fish have managed to jump or wriggle) but rather in the stream where the fish and other creatures actually live.

The result: another appeal, which remains before the EPA. The agency has asked the state to strengthen some procedural steps it took in developing the latest permit rules. 

Despite all this, Teck executives said last week, the company plans to spend the money necessary to begin mining the Aqqaluk deposit. Company officials said they are confident that the process for resolving the appeal will result in a decision that will allow a “viable operation.”

Let’s hope so. Any other result would allow absolutist dogma to triumph over rational science, at great expense to everyone in Alaska and little benefit to the environment.

 

Read more: Fairbanks Daily News-Miner - Red Dog expands