New study links mine to elevated lead levels in Hawk Inlet

Hecla Greens Creek Mine official ardently refutes the report’s findings.

Guy Archibald collects clam shell specimens on Admiralty Island. Archibald was the lead author of a recently released study that linked a dramatic increase of lead levels in Hawk Inlet’s marine ecosystem and land surrounding it on Admiralty Island to tailings released from the nearby Hecla Greens Creek Mine. (Courtesy Photo / John Neary)

Guy Archibald collects clam shell specimens on Admiralty Island. Archibald was the lead author of a recently released study that linked a dramatic increase of lead levels in Hawk Inlet’s marine ecosystem and land surrounding it on Admiralty Island to tailings released from the nearby Hecla Greens Creek Mine. (Courtesy Photo / John Neary)

A recently released study linked a dramatic increase of lead levels in Hawk Inlet’s marine ecosystem and land surrounding it on Admiralty Island to tailings released from the nearby Hecla Greens Creek Mine.

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.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, elevated lead levels in the environment can decrease growth and reproduction, and cause neurological issues for plants and animals in the area affected. Human exposure to even low levels of lead can also cause damage over time such as risks to brain development and the kidneys and nervous system, according to the Mayo Clinic.

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.”

Mike Satre, director of government affairs at Hecla, said the study makes “incredibly inappropriate and irresponsible allegations” and ardently disputed its findings.

“It was really misleading the way they put this study out there,” he told the Empire. “As a regulated entity, we are required to study our site. All the sampling that has been done, some for over 40 years, show that while there has been variability and spikes over time, lead levels are effectively the same, or even lower, than before the mine started operating.”

Satre said he questions the goals of the study and the findings that were included in both the study and its news release. The study was released amid a permitting process that would allow the mine to expand its tailings site.

“Ultimately, this is a group of people who are not happy with our existence on Admiralty Island, and they keep finding ways to make allegations that we are having an undue impact — and that’s frankly not the case,” he said. “This is yet another attempt that is likely going to be shown as not an accurate characterization of the Hawk Inlet area.”

Hawk Inlet, located on the northern end of Admiralty Island National Monument, is home to the Greens Creek Mine which is the largest silver mine in the U.S. It’s been in operation at its site since 1989 and is the only mine in the country that has permission to operate inside the national monument.

The mine has permission to operate on the island because it had preexisting rights via its claim to the area which predated the island’s establishment as a monument, Satre said.

However, Hecla does partially lease monument lands for its tailings site, and to do so per the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, it must ensure the site does not cause irreparable harm to the monument and that the permitted use of the land causes less harm to any other reasonable location.

The mine is considered to be an economic powerhouse for the communities that surround it, and in 2022, the mine produced 9.7 million ounces of silver and reported $335.1 million in sales, according to Business Wire.

Friends of Admiralty Island argues the study’s findings are evidence that irreparable harm has been done and continues to be done by the mine and mitigation efforts are needed to stop any further damage.

“We suspected it all along, it’s not like it was a shock,” Friends of Admiralty Island President John Neary told the Empire. “We felt like this was the proof needed to move the conversation from one of denial to one of affirmation — it means that they can’t deny the large portion the tailing plays in the role of producing lead within the inlet.”

Satre disagreed.

“That is simply not the case,” he said. “We will not pretend that there hasn’t been an impact from our operations, that can be seen by our samples over time, but Hawk Inlet has been deemed healthy.”

Neary said the Friends of Admiralty Island aren’t advocating for the mine’s closure, noting the group acknowledges the mine’s economic value to surrounding communities and the country.

Neary said the group is urging action to address the study’s findings, including putting a mitigation plan in place before the mine is permitted to expand its tailings site. The advocacy group is also requesting that the state declare the entire Hawk Inlet as an “Impaired Water Body.”

Impairment, according to the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, means that a waterbody persistently exceeds state water quality standards and is usually determined after two or more years of water quality monitoring.

Terri Lomax, water quality program manager for DEC, told the Empire that the department is still evaluating the report’s data to see if it meets the minimum requirements needed to warrant a declaration.

“We are looking forward to reviewing the data,” she said. “I will say that this area is actively monitored and regulated through quite a few agencies, it’s all actively monitored through the permit.”

Guy Archibald, the lead author of the study, said he feels the U.S. Forest Service needs to take a larger role in studying the mine’s effects on the surrounding environment, to ensure the mine is upholding its agreement to not cause irreparable harm to the island.

“This report is not conclusive, science rarely is, but there’s a ton of red flags here,” he told the Empire. “Before they make this worse, they need to go back and answer the simple question, ‘Are they having a negative impact on the biological community?’ and there are a ton of red flags that there are — but nobody knows until more studies are done.”

Paul Robbins, public affairs officer for the Forest Service, told the Empire by email that the Forest Service is about to release the Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the mine’s request to expand its tailings site.

He said the DEIS identifies additional mitigation and monitoring measures under all alternatives, including the no action.

Robbins said in addition to the Forest Service’s work, the Environmental Protection Agency, a cooperating agency on the process, is currently evaluating the methodology, results and interpretations presented in the report.

The inlet isn’t only utilized by the species that roam its land and waters — residents of the nearby village, Angoon, also rely on it and the surrounding land for recreational, commercial and subsistence resources.

Angoon Mayor Joshua Bowen told the Empire there have long been rumors about high levels of lead coming from Hawk Inlet resulting from the mine and that lead could be running down Chatham Straight and into the area of Angoon. He said if the study’s findings are accurate, it would be cause for concern.

“It’s definitely a big fear,” Bowen said. “If the levels are that high and if it’s getting into our subsistence lifestyle, then yeah, that’s a definite fear and we would hope that Greens Creek and Hecla are taking all the necessary measures to make sure that’s not the case.”

He said he hopes more information about what protections are currently in place by the Forest Service and the mine are made more apparent to ensure the people of Angoon are confident in not being subjected to harm.

Though the study’s executive summary calls for Angoon to be given compensation for the “loss of traditional subsistence and culture values” due to the mine’s operations, Bowen said the village currently has no plans for action in place in response to the study’s findings.

• Contact reporter Clarise Larson at clarise.larson@juneauempire.com or (651)-528-1807. Follow her on Twitter at @clariselarson.

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