ANCHORAGE - Residents of Kivalina have filed notice that they plan to sue Teck Cominco for $88 million in damages stemming from alleged water-quality violations at the Red Dog Mine in Northwest Alaska.
Teck Cominco, which operates the world's largest zinc mine near Kotzebue, said the discharges are allowed under an agreement the company negotiated with regulators.
The Center for Race, Poverty & the Environment based in San Francisco, is handling the case for Kivalina, a coastal village of fewer than 400. Luke Cole, a lawyer for the organization, filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue last week.
"This is a very simple suit. Teck Cominco has admitted more than 3,200 violations," Cole said. "We have their own employees swearing under the penalty of perjury that they've violated the permits."
Cole said the monthly reports filed by the company with the EPA indicate that Teck Cominco has consistently violated the allowable limits for cyanide, zinc, lead, selenium and total dissolved solids since the EPA issued the permits in 1998 and 1999.
Charlotte MacCay, Teck Cominco's senior environmental administrator in Alaska, doesn't dispute that the mine has not been able to meet the terms of the permits. But she noted the company has reported everything to the EPA, the state and the village of Kivalina. She also said the mine's higher-than-allowed discharges of heavy metals and other contaminants continue because a compliance order with the government gives the company more time to produce cleaner wastewater.
"The EPA has been there all along," MacCay said.
EPA spokesman Bill Dunbar said the permits that Red Dog operates under are the most stringent of any mine in the world and it's not a surprise that Teck Cominco would find it hard to meet the terms. After a $4.5 million settlement with the EPA in 1997 over water-quality violations at the mine, the agency required the company to install cutting-edge technology to remove metals and toxins from wastewater before it enters Red Dog Creek, which flows into the Wulik River, the source of drinking water for Kivalina, Dunbar said.
While the technology has reduced the amount of discharged cyanide and heavy metals, Dunbar said, it has increased the level of dissolved solids, or tiny particles of rock or other matter. But the levels of dissolved solids aren't toxic to humans or fish, he said.
Concerned residents of Kivalina don't buy the reassurances from EPA or Teck Cominco.
"Our water is tasting like soap. The ugruk, they're diminishing," said Kivalina teacher Enoch Adams, using the Inupiaq word for bearded seal.
Kivalina residents say the mine's discharges and its infrastructure, including a haul road and a port, have disrupted migration routes for the marine mammals and caribou, animals the villagers subsists on.
"They keep telling us the water is safe. They say they have studies," Adams said. "We've told them our experiences, and their studies are not matching up with our experiences."
Adams is chairman of the Kivalina Relocation Planning Committee, a panel planning the village's relocation because of shore erosion. The committee asked the California environmental justice center to assist them in suing Teck Cominco. It did so after years of trying to get government officials and mining executives to listen, Adams said.
"We couldn't get anyone's ear."