ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A recent study of a heavy metals buildup along the Red Dog mine haul road in Northwest Alaska has regulators trying to learn how bad the contamination is, what the risks are and whether a cleanup is warranted.
The study, by the National Park Service, set off alarm bells at the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
''We definitely think of it as huge. It's very significant,'' said EPA attorney Keith Cohon, the agency's coordinator for Red Dog.
Both the state and federal government are assembling high-level teams in response to the study.
The teams will try to assess the scope of the problem, determine whether and to what extent human health is at risk, figure out how to prevent the contamination, and decide if there is wrongdoing that needs to be addressed under environmental laws, Cohon said.
The Department of Environmental Conservation has formed a group of specialists to examine the report and decide what the next steps are, said Tom Chapple, director of air and water quality.
He noted that the state conducted research in the early 1990s on the public health risks associated with exposure to heavy metals in ore from the Red Dog, the world's largest lead and zinc mine. It found that the metals in their unsmelted form have low ''bioavailability,'' meaning they're not easily absorbed or distributed in the food chain and therefore pose less of a health risk than processed metals.
Last week, DEC commissioner Michele Brown denied a request by Trustees for Alaska for an emergency shutdown of the road, which connects the mine to a port 55 miles away. The Anchorage environmental law firm said no more ore should be hauled down the road until regulators figure out how to stop dust from escaping the trucks. Although the study didn't determine how the lead, zinc and cadmium are building up along the haul road, Brown said it's reasonable to conclude that ore dust is being released from the trucks.
There is no imminent threat to public health, Brown said. She also noted that the amount of contamination is below the industrial standard that would trigger a cleanup. Cohon and acting EPA regional director John Pavitt said the federal agency will review whether an industrial cleanup standard should apply to the road corridor, which cuts through 24 miles of Cape Krusenstern National Monument.
Peninsula Clarion ©2013. All Rights Reserved.