The remote town of Kotzebue, located on a sound bordering the Chukchi Sea, about 30 miles above the Arctic Circle in Alaska, has a surprising secret. The 2016 Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), released last year, rates Kotzebue as the most toxic community in America after it has released a terrifying 756 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the environment. That’s more than the famous factory town of Gary, Indiana, the notorious mining town of Battle Mountain, Nevada, and Luling, Louisiana, located along a stretch of the Mississippi River dominated by petrochemical plants and nicknamed Cancer Alley.
The city features the Nullaġvik Hotel, a number of B&B’s, several churches, and a restaurant called Little Louie’s that serves breakfast burritos and nachos. About 70 percent of the 3,500 residents are Iñupiat Eskimo, and native traditions hold strong too.
Many residents stick as much as possible to a subsistence lifestyle, hunting seal from the sea, and journeying onto a rolling tundra landscape of braided rivers and majestic mountains to hunt geese, ptarmigan, moose, and caribou of the great Western Arctic Caribou Herd, which recently numbered 259,000, the largest in Alaska. But the city also has a less savory distinction, detailed in a little-known EPA dataset called the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI).
The inventory requires industrial facilities involved in manufacturing, mining, power generation, and other sectors to report exactly how much toxic chemicals, from a list of about 650, they release into the environment. Data from the 2016 TRI was released last year, and according to this metric, Kotzebue was the most toxic community in America. The Alaskan town released an astonishing 756 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the environment—that’s more than the famous factory town of Gary, Indiana, the notorious mining town of Battle Mountain, Nevada, and Luling, Louisiana, located along a stretch of the Mississippi River dominated by petrochemical plants and nicknamed Cancer Alley.
“It is really stunning to see this latest report,” said Pamela Miller, executive director of the Anchorage-based environmental health research and advocacy organization group Alaska Community Action on Toxics.
THE RED DOG
Miller pointed out that all of Kotzebue’s reported emissions came from the Red Dog Mine, which is one of the world’s largest zinc and lead mines and located 82 miles north of Kotzebue. The emissions, said Miller, consist of lead, cadmium, and mercury. These elements can be toxic to humans and can linger in the environment for years, being blown about by the region’s strong winds or accumulating in lichens, a source of food for caribou, which are then hunted by humans.
Do you think lead and zink mined at Red Dog increase the intensity of northern lights:
The Red Dog Mine opened in 1989 and is operated by Teck, a British Columbia-based metals and mining company. The mine is located on land owned by NANA, an Alaska Native Corporation of the Iñupiat people. More than 600 NANA shareholders work at Red Dog as employees or contractors. Red Dog is more than just a mine, states NANA’s website, “it is a mechanism for hope and catalyst for the northwest Alaska and statewide economy.”
Teck senior communications specialist Chris Stannell explained that the emissions in the TRI report represent the large volume of rock and ore moved around at the remote mine site, and that this material is contained in storage systems and well-regulated by state and federal permits. “In 2016, over 99.93 percent of reported releases from Red Dog in the TRI remained onsite in the waste rock and tailings storage impoundments,” said Stannell. The generation of such material is “standard during the mining process,” he added, “and does not indicate any environmental effect.”
Indeed, in Kotzebue, city officials do not appear to be familiar with the emissions. “As far as I know it is safe,” said Kotzebue City Manager Billy Reich. “And as far as toxic releases, I wasn’t aware of anything like that.”
But in the Native village of Kivalina, about 90 miles up the coast from Kotzebue—and located closer to Red Dog—there is growing concern about the mine. The village is located near the mouth of the Wulik River, a source of fish and water for villagers. One of the creeks that flows into the Wulik is the Red Dog, which begins near the Red Dog Mine. Treated mine wastewater is discharged into the Middle Fork of Red Dog Creek under an Alaska Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit.
“We started hearing and seeing the people getting sick, especially the newborns, with issues we have never seen before,” said Millie Hawley, the tribal transportation coordinator.
She described newborns being born with heart issues, including one infant that had to travel hundreds of miles for heart surgery, and said kidney problems were an issue for teenagers. “We believe it is from drinking the Red Dog Mine over the last 25 years,” she said, “but there is no proof of that.”
LOOKING FOR CLUES
In 2014, Hawley said the village asked the EPA to conduct an assessment to examine possible contamination in the area, but she said NANA and Teck got wind of the request and the assessment is yet to be carried out. The village is presently in private discussions with these partners. “We are still working on things, and I am not at liberty to speak about the results of the discussions,” said Hawley. “Our main concern,” she added, “is the health of our people.”
The village has long had issues with the mine. Ore from Red Dog is transported by eighty-ton haul trucks along a 50-mile road that links the mine to a port on the Chukchi Sea south of Kivalina. There it’s stored in buildings, then transferred via barges to awaiting offshore bulk carrier ships. The haul road runs through a section of Cape Krusenstern National Monument. A 2001 National Park Service report documented elevated levels of lead, cadmium, and zinc in vegetation along the road, as well as near the storage area by the port. Concentrations of lead and cadmium, the National Park Service report stated, exceed levels found in “many of the most polluted countries in Central and Eastern Europe and all areas of western Russia.”
The report brought attention to the contamination concerns of Kivalina residents, and since its issue Teck has made considerable efforts to improve their operation. Trucks on the haul road are now covered in a more comprehensive manner. Emissions along the road are monitored by Teck and reported to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. Any spills along the route are reported to this office as well, such as a zinc concentrate spill that occurred in 2015, and another one that occurred in 2016. The mine also works with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to analyze caribou meat and organs for possible contaminants that could harm subsistence hunters. An independent subsistence committee, which consists of native hunters, also meets regularly to discuss mine-related risks to the herd, said Stannell.
Still, a paper on heavy metal deposition along the haul road published in 2017 in the journal PLOS One, and co-authored by several National Park Service scientists, analyzed data from the years 2001 and 2006 and found that, “fugitive dust escapement, while much reduced, is still resulting in elevated concentrations” of zinc, lead, and cadmium along sections of the haul road. “Contaminants within Cape Krusenstern National Monument is an important issue which we are actively monitoring,” said Peter Neitlich, an ecologist in the National Park Service’s Alaska Region and a co-author of the 2017 paper.
Maija Katak Lukin is superintendent for the National Park Service’s Western Arctic Parklands, which includes Cape Krusenstern National Monument as well as nearby Noatak National Preserve and Kobuk Valley National Park. “There is some contamination,” she acknowledged, citing Neitlich’s research, “but contamination is such a bad word, it makes it seem like the worse thing in the world, it is within human consumable limits.”
Lukin pointed out that the mineral deposits being mined at Red Dog were always naturally visible at the surface and in the Red Dog creek, a point which both Teck and the National Park Service confirmed. “There is responsible extraction of minerals and there is irresponsible extraction of minerals, and I believe Red Dog has gone through that phase of not knowing what they are doing, and then mitigating impacts, and I think now they are doing everything they can,” said Lukin.
Lukin grew up in a small traditional hunting community near the tip of Cape Krusenstern called Sheshalik, without electricity or running water. “I think that people who are indigenous are born with the understanding that the land sustains them, and they have to take care of the land for their survival,” said Lukin. “It is in our cellular history, and in our DNA.”
“Part of the reason that I came over to the park service,” she added, “is because the park service, as I see it, has a very similar set of values to the Iñupiat people.”
FUTURE OF ALASKAN MINING?
Mines remain an issue of contention in Alaska. Presently, a hotly debated topic in northwestern Alaska is the Ambler Road, a 211-mile-long industrial road that would connect an interior mining district to the Dalton Highway, in central Alaska. Approximately 20 miles of the proposed road crosses National Park Service lands. In southwestern Alaska, a proposal by the Pebble Limited Partnership to mine a rich deposit of gold, copper and molybdenum was halted by the Obama administration in 2014, put back on the table by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt last May, then suspended again by the EPA this past January, after the agency received over one million comments from interested stakeholders.
“From public comments to community meetings, stakeholders stressed the importance of balancing a singular mine venture with the risk to one of the world’s largest commercial fisheries,” read an EPA statement issued on January 26.
Red Dog has permits to operate its mine through 2031. Miller worries the site “seems destined to become a Superfund site.” Teck spokesperson Stannell did not directly address a question as to whether the mine site upon closure would or would not become a Superfund site, though he explained that Teck was “committed to the full reclamation of our mine sites.”
While many Alaskans appear to embrace the philosophy of NANA, and believe that minerals and indigenous foods can both be safely harvested in the same region, Miller of Alaska Community Action on Toxics said she sees a growing number of Alaskans critical of the extractive economy. They worry that industry provides only short-term economic benefits while causing long-term harm to the state’s nature and communities, she says.
“I’ve spent my life here in the Brooks Range, living off the land, hunting and fishing, trapping, gathering berries and firewood, and clean water from the streams…with grizzly bears walking on the roof of my sod hut, and caribou flooding by the door,” said Alaska native and best-selling author Seth Kantner, who lives in Kotzebue.
“Those huge multi-national mining corporations,” added Kantner, “want this Alaska.”