Red Dog-Truly a World Class Mine

The Red Dog zinc mine, owned by NANA Regional Corp. and mined by Teck, has been operating for more than 20 years in the Delong Mountains of northwest Alaska. The mine has been one of the world’s largest producers of zinc concentrates and is responsible for about half of the production value and revenue paid by the Alaska mineral industry. NANA shares its mine revenue with other Native regional corporations. The mine produces substantial quantities of lead and silver, as well as minor metals such as germanium. Concentrates are shipped to nine countries. With 490 workers, the mine is the largest private-sector employer in the Northwest Arctic Borough.

Red Dog is truly a world-class mine, and, wherever I travel, colleagues always ask about the project. 

After 20 years, the mine is entering a new era of operations as it finishes and reclaims the main deposit area and develops the adjacent Aqqaluk deposit. Both are part of the same mineral deposit, which has been separated by a fault.

Permitting and planning for the Aqqaluk unit has been ongoing for several years and has included federal and state agencies, non-government organizations, local municipalities and regional organizations. On Dec. 2, the state approved the reclamation and closure plan for the main deposit and the waste management plan to authorize the development of the Aqqaluk deposit. On Dec. 10, the Northwest Arctic Borough approved the Aqqaluk project, and, on Dec. 15, the state issued the 401 certification of the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System and the U.S. Army Corps 404 permits. 

On Jan. 15, two nonprofit law firms, the Trustees for Alaska and the San Francisco-based Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, representing local tribes and environmental groups, filed an appeal of the state’s 401 certification, asserting that certain provisions do not comply with the Clean Water Act. 

On Feb. 16, the same groups appealed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s issuance of the NPDES permit, which was due for renewal on March 1.

Issues brought up in the lawsuit include mixing zones, effluent limitations and “backsliding” (changed limits). Until the EPA responds, the entire permit is stayed.

Much of the controversy revolves around changing stipulations that incorporate new standards for “total dissolved solids” into the Red Dog permits. Based on developing science during the past 12 years, the state of Alaska has adopted new water quality standards. These new water discharge standards apply statewide for hundreds of public and private endeavors. Local examples include Golden Heart Utilities and visitor-related businesses at the entrance of Denali National Park and Preserve. The state standards allow mixing zones, many of which are issued to municipal waste treatment systems and not mines. 

Pre-mining surveys done in the 1980s found no fish and other aquatic life present in Red Dog Creek because of naturally occurring toxic metal concentrations and very acidic conditions. “Ten years of aquatic surveys have demonstrated that aquatic productivity in the main stem (of Red Dog Creek) has increased from pre-mining conditions due to effective water management practices and treatment,” Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation researchers said in 2004. Under the new 401 permit issued by the state, Red Dog will continue to treat and discharge water and implement additional water treatment.

When the Red Dog Mine began in 1989, the original permit did not contain effluent limitations for many parameters. Based on new science, regulatory standards are evolving. When an updated permit was issued in 1998, the agencies did their jobs — just as NGOs asked — and incorporated effluent limitations based on the new water quality standards. 

If mining permits are blocked, Red Dog mine might be forced to shut down, which will have no environmental benefit. Rainwater and snowmelt must continue to be treated and discharged to manage water levels in the tailings pond. Hundreds of employees will be out of work in a region where good family wage jobs are precious.

The regulatory agencies are doing their jobs at Red Dog. A healthy environment co-exists with economic development. So let’s not tarnish the jewel in the crown of Alaska’s mineral industry. 

Tom Bundtzen is a geological and minerals consultant based in Fairbanks. He is a past statewide president of the Alaska Miners Association and works on natural resource issues for the Greater Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce. The views expressed in this article are his own.

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