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 or (651)-528-1807. Follow her on Twitter at @clariselarson.

More in News

Aurora forecast for the week of Nov. 27

These forecasts are courtesy of the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute… Continue reading

Ron Ekis (wearing red) and Dakota Brown order from Devils Hideaway at the new Vintage Food Truck Park as Marty McKeown, owner of the property, shows seating facilities still under construction to other local media members on Wednesday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
New Vintage Food Truck Park makes year-round debut

Two of planned five food trucks now open, with covered seating and other offerings in the works.

Steve Bradford (left) and Mark Kissel, both vice presidents of the Riverside Condominiums Homeowners Association, discuss repairs to two of the complex’s buildings on Aug. 9 as a bulldozer places rock fill under a corner of one building exposed by erosion during record flooding of the Mendenhall River on Aug. 5. Repairs to both buildings ultimately were successful. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Juneau Community Foundation offering pool of $28,300 in relief funds to Suicide Basin flood victims

Deadline to apply is Dec. 31, funds will be divided among applicants.

Key Bank was one of the banks victimized by a Juneau man who was sentenced Tuesday to two-and-a-half years in prison for stealing nearly $580,000 multiple banks and credit unions between 2020 and 2022. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire file photo)
Former Juneau armored guard sentenced to 2½ years for stealing from banks, credit unions

Austin Nolan Dwight Rutherford, 29, convicted of stealing nearly $580,000 between 2020 and 2022.

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Monday, Dec. 4, 2023

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

The Juneau School District is entangled in a dispute with the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development about supplemental funds the city provides for what the district calls non-instructional purposes such as after-school programs and pupil transportation. (Jonson Kuhn / Juneau Empire file photo)
State seeks to change rules for ‘local contribution’ funds to school districts beyond the ‘cap’

Education department abandons challenge under existing state law to Juneau, other districts.

A chart shows the proposed plans for each of the Alaska Marine Highway System’s nine ferries next summer under a schedule open for public comment until Dec. 19. (Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities)
Proposed ferry schedule for next summer looks a lot like this year’s — with one possible big exception

Cross-Gulf sailings will resume if enough crew hired; AMHS begins two-week public comment period.

Ron’s Apothecary Shoppe, located at the south end of the Mendenhall Mall, is closing at the end of the day Wednesday, leaving Juneau with one remaining independent pharmacy. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Closure of Ron’s Apothecary Shoppe reflects nationwide battle over prescription drug prices

Policymakers: “Middlemen” between drugmakers and retailers pocket profits to detriment of consumers.

Most Read