My Turn: Money obscuring environmental issue

Posted: Thursday, October 23, 2003

Why is it that when anyone in Alaska raises environmental concerns they are immediately branded as some kind of left-wing environmentalist radical? Can't the citizens of this state have a legitimate and vested interest in its environment without being branded as a radical?

Even our Democratic party has sold out, with former Gov. Tony Knowles openly promoting oil development in ANWR and putting financial interests over the pollution resulting from Red Dog Mine.

Just to refresh everyone's memory, the state's dispute with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regarding the Red Dog Mine arose about three years ago when the EPA disagreed with a permit proposed by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC) specifying pollution control technology for the Red Dog Mine.

Teck Cominco Inc., which operates the Red Dog Mine in partnership with Kotzebue-based NANA Regional Corp., wanted to add a seventh diesel generator. The company had permission from ADEC to refit all its generators with a lower-cost system for cutting certain emissions. But the EPA overruled that, instead mandating a newer "selective catalytic reduction" technology on the new generator. The EPA was not proposing modifications of the other generators.

ADEC's lower cost pollution control system is allegedly only one-third as effective as the system endorsed by the EPA. However, state officials claimed that their plan would cut emissions overall. Moreover, state officials claimed the "selective catalytic reduction" technology was unproven in Arctic conditions and cost prohibitive.

In the summer of 2002, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the EPA's actions. The state disagreed with the Circuit Court's analysis and conclusion, and requested the U.S. Supreme Court review the case. On Feb. 24, 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

While the state is trying to make this into a state's rights case, a reasonable person must ask if the state is really protecting its right to administer its own environmental regulations? Perhaps - but the primary issue may really be a financial one. Indeed, the Tony Knowles administration, which originally filed the lawsuit, said the lower court rulings threatened the economic vitality of the area.

To be sure, Red Dog Mine, located 55 miles east of the village of Kivalina and just five miles from the Noatak National Preserve, is the Northwest Arctic Borough's major economic engine, providing 14 percent of total employment there. Additionally, NANA Regional Corporation will get an estimated $1 billion over the mine's projected life of 50 years.

Although the financial implications surrounding this issue are clear, one has to wonder if the Knowles Administration ever considered the environmental vitality of the area. In 1989, when the Red Dog Mine opened, concentrations of zinc were measured at levels more than 600 percent above what the government considers healthy to water life. In 1991, the EPA issued 134 separate permit violations to Cominco and fined them $75,000 for illegally discharging heavy metals into a nearby creek. In December of 1991, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation issued a warning to the Red Dog Mine that lead levels outside the mill were 30 percent higher than what is considered to be protective of human health. The EPA's 2001 TRI ranked Red Dog Mine the state's number one emitter of toxic substances and the second biggest nationwide, with a release of 216,000 tons of toxics to the environment. In September 2002, residents of Kivilina, home to about 380 people and the closest village to the mine, sued Teck Cominco Ltd., charging the company with 2,171 federal water-pollution violations. Filed in U.S. District Court as a citizen action under provisions of the Clean Water Act, the lawsuit seeks more than $59 million in fines.

While there may be a valid legal issue involving state's rights regarding this particular issue, we should not let politicians and money obscure the pollution of our state into secondary issue status. To paraphrase a line from the movie "The Outlaw Josey Wales" - don't [urinate] on me and tell me it's raining. All Alaskans have a vested interest in protecting their land and air. Our children will inherit the fruits of our labors - or lack of them. The political establishment and big business want us to believe that the rewards far outweigh the risks with regard to the exploitation of our natural resources because they stand to make billions of dollars over the years. How much do you think that you and I will make? Regardless of how many mines they open up or how many new oil fields are discovered we -the little people -will continue to clip coupons, live paycheck to paycheck and pay our never-ending bills. Don't let them fool you. Hold them accountable.

• Mike Layne is a Barrow resident and counselor for the North Slope Borough.

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