Just last month, backers of the Red Dog Mine in Northwest Alaska insisted that existing federal and state mining pollution laws were plenty strong. The anti-pollution proposition on the August primary election ballot was unnecessary, they said, because mines are already properly disposing of their wastes.
If that's the case, why did Red Dog agree earlier this summer to build a 55-mile pipeline to pump its wastewater to the Chukchi Sea?
Red Dog proposes to build the wastewater pipeline at a cost of as much as $120 million to settle a lawsuit brought by villagers in Kivalina.
The villagers contend the zinc and lead mine violated its federal water pollution discharge permit 2,600 times since 2002. Treated waste from Red Dog eventually goes into the Wulik River, where Kivalina gets its drinking water.
Red Dog owners and supporters campaigned vigorously against Ballot Measure 4 in the primary election. It would have prevented any new, large-scale mining from disposing of mining waste in any way that would harm humans or spawning salmon.
Opponents of Measure 4 argued it could also block the permits of existing mines like Red Dog, as they renew or change their operations. And they said Alaska already has strict anti-pollution rules in place for mines.
Obviously not strict enough.
After years of disposing of the waste in a river that supplies drinking water, Red Dog suddenly agrees to spend millions and millions on a pipeline to dump its wastewater somewhere else.
Red Dog spokesman Jim Kulas characterizes the decision as good for both sides.
"As long as it rains, as long as it snows, Red Dog must treat and discharge water," Kulas said in an interview Tuesday. And the pipeline is a way to dispose of the wastewater in a good way, and at the same time alleviate villagers' concerns, Kulas said.
It leaves the question hanging, how safe was Kivalina's drinking water up til now?
And on a broader scale, are Alaska's anti-pollution laws for mines doing a good enough job of protecting the public?