Three years after an Angoon subsistence hunter harvested a mercury-laden seal near Greens Creek Mine, a documentary sponsored by local activists has rehashed the debate over the mine’s environmental practices and the suitability of subsistence food harvested near the mine for human consumption.
“Irreparable Harm,” a 20-minute documentary produced by Wild Confluence Media and Votiv Earth, in association with Juneau-based Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, makes the case that runoff from the mine has altered the chemical makeup of Hawk Inlet, a body of water north of the Alaska Native village of Angoon on Admiralty Island.
The film references two 2015 studies sponsored by Friends of Admiralty Island, an environmental advocacy group formed to protect the Admiralty Island National Monument just a few miles west of Juneau. According to the Friends study, Hawk Inlet’s seaweed, cockles, crab, shrimp, clams and mussels all show higher levels of toxic metals compared to other parts of the state.
The findings from both the seal tissue samples and the Friends study have subsistence hunters in Angoon fearing for the future of their culturally-important food source, according to the documentary.
“One of the greatest fears we have is having to move away because we can no longer eat what we’ve been eating for centuries,” Angoon resident Joe Zuboff said.
Greens Creek has criticized the documentary in an interview with the Empire. Spokesperson Mike Satre said the film is misleading and leaves out significant parts of the story, specifically an analysis done by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services which show that subsistence foods harvested in Hawk Inlet are fit for human consumption and that any contamination in subsistence foods cannot be linked to the mine.
Satre recently attended the Juneau opening of the film at Gold Town Nickelodeon theater.
“It’s unfortunate that a documentary film like that completely avoided the facts of the matter that have been put out by our state regulatory agencies. So certainly I was disappointed to see that groups opposed to mining in Southeast Alaska would resort to those sorts of efforts,” Satre said.
The controversy started in the winter of 2015, when an Angoon subsistence hunter harvested a harbor seal in Hawk Inlet. Friends of Admiralty Island took a sample of the seal and tested it as a precaution to ensure the meat was free of contamination.
The results showed 222 milligrams of per kilogram in the seal’s liver — a much higher level than the study’s authors could find in samples from other Alaska and West Coast harbor seals.
“This number was off the charts,” SEACC scientist Guy Archibald said in the documentary.
Consuming high levels of mercury can be toxic to humans, especially pregnant women and young children. Angoon residents shared and consumed the seal before mercury testing results were available, leading the president of the Angoon Community Association to pen a letter to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services calling for more testing to ensure Hawk Inlet’s subsistence foods are safe to eat.
About 31 percent of households in Angoon consume harbor seal, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Seal liver, where mercury concentrations were particularly high, is an Alaska Native delicacy and may have been the first part of the seal the Angoon community ate.
“Our people were assured that our subsistence rights would be protected. Today, we still hear assurances from the permitting agencies that 26 years after the mine started operating our access to and the quality of our traditional foods remains unimpaired. We have strong evidence that these assurances are inaccurate. We need your guidance and assistance in addressing our concerns,” President Wally R. Frank, Sr., wrote.
A critical point “Irreparable Harm” leaves out, according to Satre, is DHSS’ response to Frank, Sr.’s letter: a 20-page analysis concluding that subsistence foods from Hawk Inlet are safe to eat.
The health of all animals cannot be judged from one specific seal, DHSS said. Further, the seal tested by Friends of Admiralty Island was an older adult male, which will naturally have a higher concentration of metals, DHSS’ Ali Hamade told the Empire at the time.
“As a general rule of thumb, younger animals will have lower concentration of contaminants. If you want to consume seal, if it’s a younger seal, chances are you will get a lower amount of contaminants,” he said, adding, “If I lived in Angoon, I’d consume these foods.”
Angoon also forwarded to the state results from the Friends study on metals levels in mussels, cockles, crab and other subsistence foods harvested from Hawk Inlet.
The Friends study doesn’t directly link the mine to high metals levels, DEC’s Allan Nakanishi said, as Hawk Inlet has naturally-occurring mineralization which the study didn’t separate out from mine runoff.
DEC’s finding is also not mentioned in the documentary.
“Hawk Inlet does have natural occurring drainages from highly mineralized areas, so we did not see any direct evidence indicating that Greens Creek mine was the specific source of the metals that were detected in the Friends report,” Nakanishi told the Empire at the time.
Archibald said he can’t speak to the fairness of leaving that information out of the documentary. He doesn’t agree with the findings.
“I don’t agree at all with DEC’s conclusions, any more than I agree with the Hawk Inlet monitoring reports,” Archibald said, adding, “I don’t think it’s SEACC’s responsibility to prove that there’s something wrong out there, it’s the agency’s responsibility to prove that the mine is operating safely.”
The only way to do this, he said, is to repeat a 1980 “baseline” study conducted near the mine and nearby Young’s Bay, which was used as a control. The Friends of Admiralty Island repeated parts of that baseline study in their 2015 report.
The Friends study was limited because of budgetary constraints but was an attempt to show “enough red flags” to encourage the State of Alaska to repeat the baseline study in full.
“Our point was to make enough information available to produce another baseline study,” he said.
But Kate Kanouse and Jackie Timothy at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Habitat Division said those studies “simply aren’t replicable” because they don’t describe the locations of sampling in enough detail. Any repeat of the study wouldn’t be comparable to the 1980-1981 study.
The baseline study looked at six sites, the locations of which are described only “very generally,” Kanouse said. Four of those sites are “known sites of contamination” caused by human activity in Hawk Inlet, including a cannery that caught fire in the 1970s and burned down, further complicating a repeat of baseline studies.
Archibald said he isn’t buying what ADFG has to say about repeating the baselines studies. He said there needs to be more science on what’s happening in Hawk Inlet, and that the onus to require that falls on the State of Alaska.
“It’s my belief that the mine will do what’s required of them. They’ve done everything that the state and federal agencies have asked them to do. They’ve even gone above and beyond. It’s the state agencies whose duty it is to protect the public trust that’s not requiring the mine to do what it should be doing,” Archibald said.
Greens Creek will hold an annual public meeting in Juneau likely in June or July to go over data from their environmental monitoring programs. This is a requirement through their waste management program, Satre said.
A date for that meeting hasn’t yet been set, according to Greens Creek’s webpage on the Department of Natural Resources website.
Want to watch?
Want more information on “Irreparable Harm” or are interested in screening? Contact Bryn Fluharty, Southeast Alaska Conservation Council Communications Coordinator at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 586-6942. It’s currently on a festival circuit, filmmakers say, but will be released online free for viewing likely sometime this summer.
• Contact reporter Kevin Gullufsen at 523-2228 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @KevinGullufsen.