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ANCHORAGE - Two Alaska Native villages near the world's largest zinc mine are challenging the mine's water discharge permit, saying it is a "license to pollute."
The Native villages of Kivalina and Point Hope are appealing the state's certification of the Red Dog Mine permit issued Thursday by the Environmental Protection Agency. The villages allege that it violates the federal Clean Water Act and the state's water quality standards.
Village residents are concerned that the permit puts their health at risk.
"This new permit is a license to pollute," said Enoch Adams of Kivalina.
The village supports economic development, but it is very concerned how toxic chemicals, including cyanide and ammonia, are affecting drinking water and fish near the mine, he said.
Teck Alaska Inc., the operator of the Red Dog Mine, applied for a new federal discharge permit to expand its mining operations into an area adjacent to the main pit. The mine, which has been in operation since 1989, is the biggest employer in the area.
The permit allows so-called mixing zones so Red Dog can put mining wastewater directly into the Wulik River, a stream that residents use for drinking water and food, said Trish Rolfe, executive director of the law firm Trustees for Alaska.
Rolfe said the mixing zones are being allowed so Red Dog does not continue to violate its federal water discharge permit. From 2000 to 2008, the mine in northeast Alaska topped the Environmental Protection Agency's Toxics Release Inventory list - an annual compilation of toxic chemicals released by all industries in the U.S. - giving it the reputation as the nation's worst polluter.
Those violations allowed significant levels of toxic chemicals into Red Dog Creek, which flows into Ikalukrok Creek and the Wulik River, which is used by the city of Kivalina for drinking water, according to groups challenging the permit.
The new permit amounts to a relaxing of standards, said Pam Miller, executive director of Alaska Community Action on Toxics.
"That is the wrong approach," she said.
Jim Kulas, environmental and public affairs manager for Teck, said state and federal agencies recently completed a review of water quality issues at Red Dog and concluded the operation is safe.
"Based on years of data documenting a healthy downstream environment, in the agencies' judgment, the permit will be fully protective of human health and the environment," he said.
Kulas said if the appeal results in a permitting delay extending beyond the first quarter of this year, production at Red Dog likely would be reduced or interrupted.
The Department of Environmental Conservation, the state agency that certified the permit, is reviewing the appeal, said spokeswoman Weld Royal.
Teck Alaska Inc. is a U.S. subsidiary of Teck Resources Ltd., a diversified mining company headquartered in Vancouver, Canada. NANA Regional Corp., an Alaska Native corporation, owns the Red Dog land.