Investigators find no food contamination outside mine port

Posted: Sunday, September 30, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Preliminary results from testing berries and greens about a mile from the Red Dog mine port suggest locals are not risking their health by gathering wild foods there, state officials said last week.

Although it's too early to draw conclusions, the information collected so far indicates only trace amounts of lead and zinc were detected in the samples, said Ron Klein, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation's Red Dog project manager.

''Nothing I've seen or heard indicates an imminent public health risk,'' Klein said. ''It just doesn't appear to be there.''

Villagers from Kivalina traditionally have picked salmonberries and sourdock around the port site, where ore concentrate from the huge Red Dog mine is loaded onto barges for transport to Canadian smelters, said tribal administrator Colleen E. Koenig. After a National Park Service study this summer revealed elevated lead and zinc levels along the Red Dog haul road, a 52-mile corridor that connects the mine and the port, villagers became concerned they might be poisoning themselves by eating berries harvested near the port, Koenig said.

Lead and zinc are naturally occurring elements, often present in air, water and soil. When ingested by humans, the metals can cause health problems.

The DEC has said that research in the early 1990s found that the metals in ore, such as that extracted from Red Dog, have low ''bioavailability,'' meaning they are not easily absorbed or distributed in the food chain and therefore pose less of a health risk than processed metals.

The DEC recently formed a team of scientists and policy-makers from state and federal agencies to continue studying whether ore dust from Red Dog mining affects public health. The team also will determine if the lead and zinc buildup inside the port, at the mine and along the haul road exceeds the level that would trigger a cleanup, according to the DEC.

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