Report: Leave contaminated Hawk Inlet seafloor alone

A new state report recommends against dredging to clean up metal-soaked sediment in a body of water near Greens Creek mine.

Last week, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation released a draft document reconfirming that two portions of Hawk Inlet are contaminated well beyond standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency. There are few indications that the contamination is entering the region’s food chain, the report concludes, but it recommends increased monitoring to ensure that remains the case.

The report is not groundbreaking, but it compiles the most up-to-date research on an area that has garnered scrutiny during the past year.

Last year, a seal harvested in the area prompted increased scrutiny. Friends of Admiralty Island studied the seal and found high concentrations of mercury.

A report issued in February by DEC and the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services determined that the animals of the area remain safe to eat: The health of all animals cannot be judged from one specific seal.

In 1989, an ore spill dumped minerals into Hawk Inlet as Greens Creek began operating. Some of the minerals were recovered, but the ruins of a destroyed cannery precluded getting all the ore, which mixed with the inlet’s sediment.

Dredging the contaminated sediment “could disturb contaminated sediments, and might spread the contaminants throughout currently uncontaminated areas of Hawk Inlet,” the report states.

For that reason, the state is recommending that the contaminated areas be left alone, allowing it to become covered by fresh sediment in natural processes.

The contaminated areas represent a small part of Hawk Inlet — one is at a point far from the inlet’s mouth, and the other point is directly under Greens Creek’s ore loading dock.

Other than those two areas, “it’s a very healthy water body,” said Gretchen Pikul of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

The contamination does not appear to be spreading rapidly from the sediment into the water or the area’s native animals.

K.J. Metcalf is president of Friends of Admiralty Island and said he disagrees with the no-dredging recommendation.

“We think that it needs to be cleaned up,” he said.

Asked whether he worries that dredging could stir up and spread contaminated sediment, he responded that “it might for a short time, but I think by removing the major part of the spill, you’re going to lower the toxins in that area.”

Metcalf also said that he takes issue with the “pre-mining baseline” measurement used by DEC to judge the level of contamination in the Inlet. The state’s baseline comes from measurements taken between 1985 and 1988, when the mine was under construction but not yet shipping ore. He’d prefer the state use measurements from 1981, before construction.

If those measurements were used, they would show a greater increase in contamination since the mine’s construction.

Mike Satre, spokesman for Greens Creek, said the important takeaway is that even though two specific areas of sediment are contaminated, “the idea here is that there is still no issue with the overall water quality in Hawk Inlet.”

Last week’s draft report is another guidance document, and Greens Creek is continuing to monitor Hawk Inlet at many points, not just the contaminated ones.

He said staff are still reading through the report, and that the public will have ample time to comment on its recommendations.

The draft Hawk Inlet document is available at http://dec.alaska.gov/water/wqsar/index.htm. Comments may be emailed to gretchen.pikul@alaska.gov before 5 p.m. Nov. 14.

A public meeting on the report is planned for 4-6 p.m. Oct. 25 at 410 Willoughby Ave., Suite 303.

• Contact James Brooks at james.k.brooks@juneauempire.com or at (907) 523-2258.

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