Metal mining identified as major pollutant

Report: 5 major mines have had at least one major spill or release of hazardous materials

A new report by the conservation entity Earthworks identifies a track record of impacts to land and water in Alaska from failure to capture and treat mine pollution.

The report cites metal mining as the leading source of toxic releases in Alaska and contends that it poses a significant threat to the state’s clean water, clean air and health of the land.

Key findings in the report are based on information Earthworks said was gathered from an extensive review of state and federal documents, news reports and the federal National Response Center database on the Kensington gold mine, Red Dog zinc-lead mine, Greens Creek underground silver mine, Fort Knox/True North open-pit gold mine and Pogo underground gold mine.  All five mines have experienced at least one major spill or other accidental release of hazardous materials such as mine tailings, cyanide solution, diesel fuel and ore concentrate, according to author Bonnie Gestring, the Northwest program director for Earthworks.

Four of the five mines failed to capture or control contaminated mine water, resulting in water quality violations that often occurred over an extended period, and four of the five mines have been identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as out of compliance with federal laws to protect clean air or water in the last three years, according to the report.   

Alaska Commissioner of Environmental Conservation Jason Brune has defended the state’s mining industry, issuing a statement in mid-February saying the “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 was responding to an EPA analysis of the annual Toxics Release Inventory data for 2018, which includes permitted and regulated releases, such as air emissions and wastewater discharges and managed waste in regulated disposal facilities.

According to DEC, the vast majority of Alaska’s reported mine releases consist of naturally occurring trace minerals in waste rock and tailings excavated from mine sites, which are disposed of in state-permitted, engineered and monitored disposal sites. Due to extensive mining activity, Alaska had the highest reported TRI volumes in the nation, DEC said.

Efforts to reach Brune for comment on the Earthworks report were unsuccessful.

Alaska Commissioner of Fish and Game Doug Vincent-Lang said his agency is concerned about water quality and wants to make sure water is sufficient for fish and wildlife, their habitat and uses, but that he felt current state regulations for the mines were adequate.

According to Bob Shavelson, Innkeeper and advocacy director for Cook Inletkeeper, in Homer, disagrees. “I think Alaskans have been fed a false narrative for many years,” Shavelson said. “We were told we had a first class permitting regime, but in fact pollution and environmental violations are just part of doing business for large mines in Alaska.”

Writing in his blog on the mining industry on March 9, Shavelson said “the truth is that Alaskans own our fish and water resources under Article VIII of the Alaska Constitution, and while we have a right to use these resources responsibly, we have a corresponding obligation to protect them for those who come after us.”

“This report shows that we have a completely inadequate system of oversight and regulation,” said Pam Miller, executive director of Alaska Action on Toxics, in Anchorage. “Clean water and community health are at risk because of these mining operations. This report ties back to information that came out with the EPA TRI release that showed Alaska as top in the nation for toxic releases overall and the largest contributor to the toxic releases were major mines in Alaska,” she said.