DEC defense of Toxics Release Inventory data challenged

State, toxic watchdog at odds over health threat of mine wastes gone airborne

Alaska Commissioner of Environmental Conservation Jason Brune says the majority of reported toxic releases in the state consist of naturally occurring trace minerals in waste rock and tailings excavated from mine sites.

Mining waste rock and tailings are disposed of in state-permitted, engineered and monitored disposal sites, Brune said, in recent comments about the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s released analysis of the annual Toxics Release Inventory data for 2018.

“Big mines like Red Dog move a significant amount of material as part of their daily operations, but such actions do not adversely impact human health and the environment,” Brune said, in a statement released by DEC in mid-February. “Characterizing such releases as toxic is disingenuous at best.”

Red Dog, a large open-pit zinc and lead mine 80 miles north of Kotzebue in northwest Alaska, is owned and operated by the Canadian mining firm Teck Resources. It lies in the Ambler Mining District, on land owned by NANA Regional Corp. and provides employment for a number of shareholders of the Alaska Native firm. Concentrates produced at Red Dog are shipped to Teck Resources’ metallurgical facilities in British Columbia, and then on to customers in Asia and Europe. Work at the mine is expected to continue through 2031.

While the report title suggests the data is comprised of accidental spills and releases, it also includes permitted and regulated releases, such as air emissions and wastewater discharges and managed waste in regulated disposal facilities, according to DEC. Chemicals are placed on the TRI list based on their potential to cause adverse effects to human health or the environment if they are not safely managed.

Still, according to DEC, the TRI reports do not necessarily mean the public is being exposed to toxic chemicals or is at risk from every release, as almost all of those releases are regulated under permit conditions designed to limit human and environmental exposure, according to the DEC statement.

Brune’s assurances notwithstanding, Pam Miller, executive director of Alaska Action on Toxics, in Anchorage, said those toxic releases are health hazards that need to be taken very seriously.

“Brune is saying the majority of these releases are naturally occurring in waste rocks and tailings,” said Miller, who is known for her work in prompting state, national and international chemicals policy reform to protect the environment and human health in the Arctic. She holds a master’s degree in environmental science from Miami University in Ohio and services. She also co-chairs the International Pollutants Elimination Network, a global network of non-government entities dedicated to a toxics-free future.

“Brune fails to note that this waste rock they are bringing up has high quantities of heavy metal concentrated ore,” she said. “Bringing this waste rock to the earth’s survey exposes it to the elements, promotes oxidation and leaching of these toxic metals and releases them into the air and water, which is why EPA requires them to report them this way in the TRI.”

“Past studies have shown that these toxic metals can travel very quickly,” Miller said. “Red Dog has a had a huge problem with fugitive dust.”

Studies on lichen and other plants that caribou herds rely on in areas that include Cape Krusenstern National Monument reveal elevated levels of heavy metals from mine dust on plant life, she said.

“Alaska has the dubious distinction of ranking highest in the nation for total release of toxic substances, for a total release of toxic substances of 973 million pounds, and this includes highly toxic chemicals like mercury, lead, arsenic, cadmium, and cyanide, to name a few,” Miller said. “Cadmium, a silvery-white metal, occurs as a minor component in most zinc ores.”

“There is no safe level of exposure to lead,” Miller said. “It is extremely neurotoxic and toxic to the developing brain of children. It is just outrageous that the industry is allowed to release this much of a neurotoxic chemical into the environment.”

The toxics releases from mines in Alaska include some 450,000 pounds of mercury, over 5 million pounds of arsenic, 91,000 pounds of cadmium and 295,000 pounds of cyanide, Miller said. “The state is trying to minimize this.

“These are all permitted discharges,” she said. “This points to the fact that despite what politicians and agency people say, the mining industry is poorly regulated.”