State alleges Cominco Alaska responsible for air pollution violations

Posted: Tuesday, April 10, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The state has accused Cominco Alaska of a number of air pollution infractions at its huge Red Dog lead and zinc mine near Kotzebue.

Officials with the Department of Environmental Conservation officials said they uncovered 18 infractions during an inspection last fall.

The allegations include knowingly operating equipment that exceeded emissions limits, failing to report the pollution violations and failing to conduct monitoring, officials said.

Cominco Alaska takes the allegations very seriously, said Charlotte MacCay, a senior administrator.

Cominco took immediate steps to investigate and correct the problems when it learned about the state's findings two weeks ago, she told the Anchorage Daily News.

Cominco was aware some of its six diesel generators were exceeding allowable limits for substances like carbon monoxide and soot. But the company continued to run the equipment because it was in a start-up period after having recently installed new technology to lower nitrogen oxide from the engines.

The start-up allowed Cominco to operate and adjust the machinery as it came into compliance, MacCay said.

Regulators and the company disagree about that.

''I'm not aware of any grace period built into the permit,'' said John Kuterbach, DEC air permit manager. ''The permit requires compliance from the start-up.''

The Alaska attorney general's office will decide whether to seek fines and penalties from Cominco. The company could face up to $100,000 in fines per violation for the first day of noncompliance, and up to $10,000 a day until the problem is fixed, Kuterbach said.

It's unlikely the violations threatened the public health, state officials said.

The inspection last August was a routine effort by the state and federal Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA concurs with the state's findings but probably will issue its own report and notices of violations, Kurterbach said.

Cominco is expanding the mine's operations and needs more power to boost production. It has shipped a seventh generator, but the EPA won't allow the company to use it until some expensive, high-tech anti-pollution equipment is installed.

The state disagrees and is willing to allow the engine to run with less-costly clean-air technology.

The dispute is before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Red Dog provides about 400 jobs in the northwest Arctic on land owned by NANA Regional Corp., a Kotzebue-based Native company.

''We will continue to monitor the situation and make sure that the mine's operation is not threatening to the environment,'' said NANA president Charlie Curtis.

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