ANCHORAGE - The operator of the Red Dog Mine near Kotzebue hopes to start digging a new pit at the site next year that would extend the life of the zinc, lead and silver mine for decades.
Teck Resources says it started prep work Thursday on the expansion.
"We will fill the existing pit with the waste materials out of the new pit and cover it, re-vegetate it, and make it a natural landform. So there will only be one pit at the end of the day," said Jim Kulas, environmental manager.
He told The Anchorage Daily News a Corps of Engineers wetlands permit allows it to begin excavation. It could take most of the rest of the year to get down to ore-bearing rock, he said.
Red Dog has operated since 1989 and is the largest employer in Northwest Alaska with nearly 500 jobs. The land is owned by the NANA Regional Corp. of Kotzebue and profits are shared with other Native corporations under federal law.
Red Dog has battled fines and lawsuits because of its water discharges.
The mine continues to be out of compliance with a limit on the total dissolved solids in its discharge water, Kulas said.
If the mine stays out of compliance it could face legal action, including fines or lawsuits, said Ed Kowalski, director of the EPA's enforcement office in Seattle. But it won't affect the start of the new pit.
"Whether they're out of compliance with that permit is a separate issue," Kowalski said.
Opponents say the mine's discharges could harm spawning grayling.
"We want to see Red Dog comply with the more stringent requirements," said Vicki Clark, a lawyer with the Trustees For Alaska, an Anchorage firm that has represented some groups disputing the permit. "I hope that EPA will do its job and protect human health and that Teck will do its best to comply with the requirements moving forward."
She said it isn't their intent to shut down the mine, just to protect the water quality.