ANCHORAGE - Alaska ranks as the state with the greatest volume of toxic chemicals being released into the environment, according to a new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report.
The report says most of the releases are coming from the Red Dog mine near Kotzebue, the world's largest zinc mine.
Red Dog released more than 481 million pounds of toxic chemicals in 2002. That made it the state's No. 1 facility as far as toxic releases, the report said.
The Greens Creek mine near Juneau ranked second, with 42.5 million pounds of toxic chemical releases. And the Illinois Creek mine, 300 miles north of Anchorage, released 28 million pounds, ranking it third, according to the Anchorage Daily News.
Alaska environmental regulators said the vast majority of the toxic releases the EPA lists are mine waste rock containing naturally occurring substances, such as lead, zinc, mercury and copper. The EPA classifies these as toxic chemicals. They are considered released when the ore is excavated, processed and piled in contained areas.
"All of Alaska's mining waste-rock piles have been studied, engineered and permitted by state and federal agencies to protect public health and the environment," said Ernesta Ballard, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.
Officials with Teck Cominco, the Red Dog operator, agreed. Jim Kulas, environmental superintendent, said all discharges from the mine are regulated, including runoff from the waste-rock piles.
Environmentalists used the report as fodder to attack both the mining industry and government regulators. Pam Miller, executive director of Alaska Community Action on Toxics, said Red Dog's waste-rock piles have the potential to leach acid runoff into surface and ground water, exposing residents who live downstream from the mine to serious health dangers.
The runoff is created when the rock piles are exposed to air and moisture, setting off a chemical reaction that produces acidity.
Just because the rock piles have government permits doesn't make them safe, she said.
"It's a poorly regulated facility. There's no enforcement," Miller said.
Kulas said the runoff is captured and treated before being released into Red Dog Creek. When it enters the creek, the treated water meets drinking-water standards for metals.
Besides the waste-rock piles, Red Dog also released nearly 195,000 pounds of toxic chemicals into the air, according to the EPA report, Miller said.
DEC deputy commissioner Kurt Fredriksson strongly disagreed with Miller about the extent of environmental problems at the mine or the perceived lack of oversight.
"I don't know what kind of evidence they have," Fredriksson said. "It's a very intensively regulated operation."