According to a recently released study, tailings released from the Hecla Greens Creek Mine are linked to a dramatic increase in lead levels in Hawk Inlet’s marine ecosystem and land surrounding it on Admiralty Island.
However, according to Brian Erickson, vice president and general manager of Hecla Greens Creek Mine who spoke to members of the Juneau Chamber of Commerce Thursday afternoon, Hecla’s data says otherwise.
“We’ve had continuous sampling going for about 39 years,” Erickson said during his presentation, much of which highlighted aspects of the mine’s current well-being, future projects and ambitions. “What we found is that the data and conclusions that Friends of Admiralty came up with don’t match the 39 years of collective data — and we collect all of that under regulatory guidance — and we do not see the same thing.”
Greens Creek Mine is the largest silver mine in the U.S. and has been in operation at its site since 1989. It is the only mine in the country with permission to operate inside a national monument and is located close to Hawk Inlet.
According to the study, commissioned by the Friends of Admiralty Island nonprofit, living clam shells located in the waters of Hawk Inlet were found to have 50% more lead compared to a separate bay on the island that is further away from the mine. The study concluded that the increased lead levels were man-made and not the outcome of natural erosion, and are “a direct result of activities at the Greens Creek mine.”
During the presentation, Erickson told chamber members that the data and conclusions that Friends of Admiralty Island came up with don’t match the mine’s findings and data.
Erickson said that Hecla asked a third-party consultant to look at the study, which found the study neglected to use the public data Hecla has available and neglected to address global environmental level increases. Erickson also said the study used a “pretty selective data set” and called it a “single sampling effort.”
“They simply said this is Greens Creek’s tailings, that was their conclusion, and they seemed to work backward from there.”
He added: “They made numerous unsupported comparisons and conclusions to support their allegation.”
Guy Archibald, the study’s lead author, said he stands by the study’s data and argued that Hecla’s data collection is not designed to find what his study found.
“We did not attempt to match their data collection protocol, we went about it in a completely different way,” he told the Empire. “He’s comparing apples and oranges — we didn’t attempt to replicate the way that they collect data — and I could go on about the issues with the data they collect.”
Archibald said he found a problem with Erickson calling the study a “pretty selective data set” and a “single sampling effort,” arguing his study was more robust and comprehensive than that description.
“It was not just one data set, we went out there several times and collected numerous samples, and duplicated analyses — I’m not sure why he’s saying it’s just one data set,” he said. “Nobody has asked us for anything that would go into data validation and verification, nobody requested the raw data that went into the writing of that study.”
Archibald said he also took issue with Erickson’s statement that the study made “allegations.”
“The bottom line is they’re not allegations, they are conclusions that derive from the data we collected — we’re not alleging anything,” he said. “We reported the conclusions of the study, that’s how science is done, science is not a belief.”
Site update and the future of the mine
Erickson also highlighted the mine’s many recent successes, but not without talking about some of the challenges the currently faces as well.
According to the presentation, in 2022 the mine consistently set daily, monthly, quarterly and yearly production records, producing 9.74 million ounces of silver along with bringing up its silver reserve by 12% from the previous year — the second highest it’s been since 2002.
Erikson said the increase in silver production has been necessary due to the declining grade of silver being produced which requires more to be mined to produce enough revenue.
Erikson said while the mine is slated to have 11 years of reserves/mine life remaining, Hecla will continue to invest in new infrastructure and is budgeting for increasing its workforce in 2023.
Recently the public comment period opened for a new report detailing four alternatives for the Hecla Greens Creek Mine North Extension Project. Hecla is seeking to extend production of the 34-year-old precious metals mine at the northern end of Admiralty Island National Monument beyond 2031, including expanding its 8.5-million-cubic yard disposal facility to hold up to an additional 5 million cubic yards of tailings and waste rock storage. Alternatives in the new report would extend the mine’s life up to 40 years.
The report, known as the Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed project, has a public comment period that runs until May 8.
Erikson said even with plans for the future of the mine and Greens Creek being the largest private sector employer in Juneau, the mine is facing difficulty in hiring new workers.
To offset that, Erikson said the mine is working to further support students and donating to the University of Alaska system to encourage students to find career opportunities with the mine, along with offering high wages. According to the slideshow, 81% of local employees at Greens Creek make more than $100,000 each year.
• Contact reporter Clarise Larson at email@example.com or (651)-528-1807. Follow her on Twitter at @clariselarson.