My Turn: Greens Creek Mine and toxic pollution

Posted: Thursday, May 08, 2003

This winter the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation released a study showing the Greens Creek mine is polluting Admiralty Island National Monument with acid mine drainage. Acid mine drainage poses a serious threat because once it starts it is extremely difficult to stop. Mine pollution continues to be a problem at mine sites that were exploited 2,000 years ago during the Roman Empire.

Acid mine drainage begins when rock waste is pulled from the mine and dumped above ground. When this rock contains sulfur and is exposed to air and water, it creates sulfuric acid. This acid releases heavy metals from the same mine waste and poisons plants and animals. The result can be the complete loss of aquatic plants, fish, and the insects that they feed on.

This week the Forest Service released a draft plan to double the size of the Greens Creek's polluting waste dumps. But the draft plan ignores the acid mine drainage and toxic heavy metals already leaking out of the existing waste piles. Simply put, Greens Creek and the Forest Service need to clean up the existing mess before they make another one.

Greens Creek has a long history of polluting Alaska's waters. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Greens Creek is Alaska's second biggest toxic polluter. It released 59 million pounds of toxic chemicals in 2000.

Last year, Greens Creek mine produced 2.7 million tons of waste, eight times the amount generated by the city of Anchorage.

Greens Creek has violated the Clean Water Act hundreds of times, and poisoned Alaska waters by releasing illegal levels of copper, zinc, cyanide and acids. Despite fines of over $350,000, Greens Creek continues to pollute Alaska's waters with toxic metals and acid mine drainage.

There is no excuse for polluting Alaska's clean water. Kennecott Corp., continually reminds us that Greens Creek mine is Juneau's largest private employer. Kennecott is also a big employer in Utah where its Bingham Canyon mine created a 72-square-mile plume of sulfate-contaminated groundwater under the homes of 70,000 Salt Lake-area residents. EPA estimates that full remediation of this groundwater resource would cost around $2.2 billion. Kennecott can avoid this type of problem in Alaska by dealing with Greens Creek's current pollution problems now.

Greens Creek hails itself as the gold standard for environmental compliance. So far Kennecott has failed miserably to meet the bar that it set for itself. Kennecott's corporate headquarters recently told the Empire they want to "go the extra mile." This is an appropriate approach because the mine is partially located on Admiralty Island National Monument, an area that Congress protected due to its incredible wildlife and cultural values. Kennecott should go the extra mile by taking care of the toxic mess that's already leaking onto the ground before they double the size of the waste pile.

Shoren Brown is the mining and water quality community organizer with the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.

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