ANCHORAGE - The Red Dog Mine violated the Clean Water Act more than 600 times, a federal judge found in a lawsuit filed by Kivalina residents.
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U.S. District Court Judge John Sedwick in Anchorage denied several hundred other alleged pollution claims against the mine, located near Kotzebue.
The six plaintiffs argued that mine operator Teck Cominco discharged illegal amounts of pollution into a river they use for drinking water and subsistence fishing.
Sedwick ruled that the company violated its discharge permit 618 times by pumping too much effluent, or treated wastewater, into Red Dog Creek, which flows into the Wulik River, according to court documents.
Kivalina, 66 miles downstream from Red Dog, relies on the river for its drinking water.
Sedwick also sided with Kivalina residents that Teck Cominco had three illegal discharges at the mine's Chukchi Sea port, about 52 miles from Red Dog, the world's largest lead and zinc mine.
Sedwick, however, denied the plaintiffs' other claims, saying they failed to prove the rest of the 1,951 alleged violations of the Clean Water Act.
Both sides claimed victory in the ruling issued Friday.
"It's a huge relief to have this win," said Enoch Adams Jr., a Kivalina resident.
Plaintiff's attorney, Luke Cole, agreed.
"We're very happy. It's been a slog to get here," Cole said. "And we'll prove another 1,500 or so violations at trial."
John Knapp, general manager of the mine, said he was "quite pleased" with Sedwick's ruling. The judge denied two-thirds of the plaintiffs' claims, he noted.
Knapp said the company was operating under a compliance order authorized by the federal Environmental Protection Agency that allowed it to exceed its discharge limits set out in the permit. The terms of the order were met, he said. But a compliance order is a legal agreement and does not protect companies from citizen lawsuits, he said.
Red Dog is owned by NANA Regional Corp., the regional Native corporation for the Northwest Arctic.
Helvi Sandvik, head of NANA Development Corp, a NANA subsidiary, said the EPA permit was impossible to comply with.
"The permit limits were very, very, very stringent. Beyond drinking-water standards," Sandvik said.
She said the mine is complying with the standards set out in a new EPA permit the agency is preparing. She said the water in the Wulik River is safe.
Teck Cominco argued in its response to the lawsuit that its pollution permit contained effluent limits that were "improperly derived and not based on any requirement of the Clean Water Act."
Sedwick, however, said that whether the limits were proper is not the issue. The issue, he said, was whether the company violated them, and on more than 600 occasions it did.
The hundreds of other alleged violations will be argued at trial.
Plaintiffs seek more than $20 million.