Summer shipping begins for Red Dog zinc

The summer shipping season began Monday at one of the world's largest zinc mines, in a record-early start thanks to melting ice.

Barge deliveries from Red Dog Mine in Northwest Alaska typically begin about Independence Day, once the Chuckchi Sea ice has backed off.

But the hauling has started earlier than ever two of the last three years.

In 2009, the season began on June 30. This year, it was another record, with the season starting June 28.

"It was definitely the earliest we've ever begun," said Wayne Hall, community and public relations manager for mine operator Teck Alaska.

Still, the recent early starts don't necessarily indicate a trend. Last year, operations began July 3.

The barge Kivalina began ferrying the zinc concentrate in several loads from the mine's port to an ocean-going barge a few miles out where the sea is not so shallow. From there, the concentrate - this ship will carry 52,000 metric tonnes - heads to the company's smelter in Trail, British Columbia. Eventually, the zinc will be used for rust-protection in galvanized steel.

Red Dog, about 80 miles north of Kotzebue, began producing in 1989. With mine royalties huge - exceeding $300 million between 2007 and 2009, for example - it's been a boon for landowner NANA and other Native regional corporations that share in the bonanza.

The barge shipping will end in about 100 days, when the ice returns. Based on past averages, the company will have hauled out more than 1 million metric tonnes of mostly zinc concentrate.

The mine produces lead too, but this first trip to Canada will include only zinc.

Days before the shipping began, Hall consulted a subsistence committee comprised of hunters from Noatak and Kivalina, the Inupiat villages closest to the mine, to make sure hunting would not be disturbed, Hall said.

"They said oogruk (bearded seal) and beluga hunting was winding down. Most of the ice was gone, so they were finalizing their activities and they didn't see this as interfering with their activity."

The original agreement between Teck and NANA called for the creation of the subsistence committee. The consultation before shipping, though voluntary, evolved into an annual occurrence, Hall said.

Committee member Wendell Booth Sr. in Noatak said hunters have no complaints about the early season.

"We got the right timing to get the shipping started," he said.

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