What's ironic about the fuss over a federal permit for a new pit at the Red Dog mine is that even if environmental groups win and the permit is denied, and the mine closes, it won't make any difference to pollution levels in Red Dog Creek. And that's what the controversy is supposed to be about.
Here's the issue: Earlier this year the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency renewed a wastewater discharge permit for the mine. The permit put in place a new limit for total dissolved solids (TDS) in the water, in this case for dissolved calcium sulfate.
Environmental groups and some local villagers appealed the permit, and EPA recently withdrew parts of it, including the TDS limit.
The mine operator, Teck Alaska Inc., has been discharging at levels approved by the EPA permit for years, and has conducted tests that indicate no harm to local fish.
Groups appealing the permit argue a number of issues, including that EPA shouldn't use mixing zones but instead should measure the TDS level at the "end of the pipe" with no dilution.
Under the permit, the pollutant levels would be measured at the end of a "mixing zone" in the creek to allow for dilution.
The EPA and the state commonly allow mixing zones, which allow for the pollutant concentration to be measured in the stream after a certain amount of dilution takes place.
The argument for a mixing zone is that fish and other critters will be in a flowing stream of water when they come across any pollutants, so it's more appropriate to take a comparable measurement in the stream rather than from the pipe.
There are other issues in the appeal, however, including that EPA and the state relaxed limits for TDS and they shouldn't do this.
The outcome of this is important, because unless the permit for Red Dog's new Aqqaluk pit is issued, the mine will run out of ore. The mine's current pit is largely depleted.
If the mine closes even temporarily -- a restart could require 18 months, according to Teck -- there would be widespread economic impacts throughout Northwest Alaska.
The irony is that if the environmental groups win their appeal and the mine shuts down, natural rainfall and melting snow would continue to flow across the Red Dog ore body, which is shallow and exposed at the surface, according to Karl Hanneman, Alaska external affairs manager for Teck Alaska. That water would drain into the creek, bringing pollutants with them.
Win or lose, the appeal won't affect the fish in Red Dog Creek.
Red Dog is a lead and zinc mine, one of the world's largest. Before the mine began operations in 1989, the natural water runoff into Red Dog Creek contained so much metal that there were no fish. When mining started, the company began treating the runoff, and soon the creek became cleaner and fish moved in.
To remove the metals from the water runoff, the mine uses a process that involves using lime. Lime raises the pH of the water and causes the metals zinc and lead, formerly dissolved in the water, to precipitate into a sludge that Teck stores in the mine tailings disposal facility. The calcium is dissolved in the water discharge and becomes TDS as calcium sulfate.
Calcium sulfate isn't such a dangerous pollutant. It is basically gypsum, which is what is used in drywall in building construction. It can be harmful if fish or humans, if ingested in large quantities, but it's not dangerous when dissolved at 1,500 parts per million, the level at which Red Dog has been discharging and the limit in the new EPA permit.
Tests on fish fertilization have shown no harm at that level. Metals like zinc or lead in the water do harm fish, but those are removed at Red Dog.
Teck and Cominco, as the mine operator was formerly known (Teck and Cominco merged) made steady improvements over the years in the removal of metals from the discharges, and have met EPA limits for the metals as they have been tightened.
The limit for zinc in the discharge permit now effective for the mine -- it was issued by EPA in 1998 -- is a monthly average of 119 parts per billion. That's down from a monthly average, of 750 ppb allowed in the 1985 discharge permit the agency issued.
The 1985 permit governed the mine discharges until the 1998 permit was issued.
For lead, the reduction was even more dramatic. Lead in the discharge was reduced from a monthly average of 300 ppb in the 1985 permit to a monthly average of 8.1 ppb in the revised 1998 permit issued.
While harmful concentrations of metals have been sharply reduced at Red Dog, the dissolved solids have been a continuing problem even if the particular chemical -- calcium sulfate -- is not particularly harmful.
The lime treatment process Teck used to remove the metals has the effect of increasing the TDS in the water discharge, and the company has been unable to find ways to reduce it below the 1,500 ppm level.
If Red Dog mine has reduced its release of really harmful pollutants, why has the mine been criticized and even sued over alleged "violations" of its permits?
The fact is that the mine has not been violating TDS limits, according to Jim Kulas, manager of environmental and public affairs for the mine.
"We've never been actually fined by any agency," said Kulas. "The EPA has endorsed this discharge practice with its compliance orders and again with the 2010 permit," although parts of the permit, including the limits on TDS, were withdrawn.
The problem Red Dog has faced is that federal and state agencies changed, and tightened, the allowable discharges several years after the mine went into production in 1989. When the mine started, there were no limits on TDS, for example.
When limits were established that would apply statewide -- these now range between 500 ppm and 1,000 ppm -- no technology was available for the mine to meet the new requirements, or at least a technology that was affordable, Teck said.
A compliance order was worked out with EPA that allowed the 1,500 ppm limit, and this allowed the mine to operate while the company worked toward improvements in its system.
Under the compliance order, however, the mine was still open to third party lawsuits, which the Clean Water Act allows. A suit was brought against Teck by the San Francisco-based Center for Race, Poverty and Environment.
A settlement was ultimately reached on the litigation with what is thought to be the ultimate solution for the discharges, a possible $120 million 60-mile pipeline to take treated water to the ocean for disposal.
Teck also agreed to pay $2.35 million for legal fees -- the Clean Water Act does not allow settlement payments to plaintiffs, but attorney fees can be paid -- as well as an $118,000 annual penalty paid to the U.S. Treasury for every year until the pipeline is built.
The pipeline, however, is contingent on the new Aqqaluk pit being open and producing, which may be held up because of the appeals.
An additional irony is that one of the appellants is the same group that initiated the third-party lawsuit, the Center for Race, Poverty and Environment. The appeal may thwart one accomplishmenrt of the settlement, the agreement to pursue the pipeline.
Brent Newell, an attorney for the center, said his clients, which include the Native Village of Kivalina, want the pipeline because it would end the practice of discharges going into Red Dog Creek, which flows into rivers used by the villagers downstream.
"They don't want to see the mine close. They just don't want the discharges going into their water," Newell said.
However, the pipeline won't satisfy everyone. Trustees for Alaska attorney Carl Johnson, representing the other party in the appeal, the Point Hope IRA Council and the Northern Center for the Environment in Fairbanks, said his clients don't like the pipeline alternative and the idea of discharges going into the ocean. They would prefer Teck to switch to another treatment system, he said.
"I think all parties could agree that if Teck improved its wastewater treatment at the point of discharge, everyone would be happier, including parties that did not participate in the appeals," Johnson said in an e-mail.
Teck said the lime treatment system being used is the best approach.
"We've done a lot of work on alternative technologies and we continue to work on advances, but our consensus is still that the lime treatment is the best in removing metals without creating or exacerbating other problems. It has proven to be very reliable," Hanneman said.
Johnson said his clients haven't seen the results of the alternative technology investigations.
"Teck has not been particularly forthcoming with what technologies they have tried or ones they considered but did not attempt to implement, or why they decided not to implement them," he said. "Teck has never disclosed as part of the public process any of its cost-benefit analysis for any technologies that could be implemented, but have chosen not to, and why. We are hoping that they will chose to discuss these issues, and soon."
Kulas said, however, that the company did provide information openly until the appeal was filed.
As for the pipeline, the mining company seems caught in the middle.
"The parties in the appeal have opposing positions on this," Hanneman said. "In any event there are certainly challenges on the design and permitting of a pipeline. We're not certain it is a global solution."
Tim Bradner can be reached at email@example.com.
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