Opinion: Questions linger amid mine permitting process

How much pollution has already taken place and how damaging is it?

  • By John Neary
  • Saturday, April 8, 2023 11:03am
  • Opinion
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)

Is the Greens Creek Mine on Admiralty Island a model of responsible resource extraction or a significant source of pollution that’s poisoning our public lands and waters? Agencies are pondering this question as the mine applies for another extension of their permit to store tailings in a growing pile along the shores of Hawk Inlet. But how much pollution has already taken place and how damaging is it to terrestrial and marine ecosystems?

Friends of Admiralty Island, a local nonprofit, public interest volunteer organization formed in 1987, advocates for the island’s protection through education, promotion of research and support for management that reflects the recognition of the island’s values. We recently commissioned a report that shows the amount of lead accumulated in clam shells near the mine has increased significantly since the mine opened. The study concludes that much of the lead comes from dust blowing off their pile of tailings. There are no safe levels of lead that can be consumed according to the State of Alaska and like other heavy metals, lead accumulates in the food chain. Hecla, owner of the mine, asserts that lead levels “go up and down over time” in the monitoring data they’ve collected over the years.

If that’s true, FOA would like to see it proven before another permit is issued. The essential question to answer is “how are current conditions of the biological community surrounding the mine different as compared to conditions measured 42 years ago before the mine operated.” Baseline studies of population numbers and species diversity showed that conditions were pristine in 1981, as you’d expect of a National Monument known for its ecological and traditional values. The baseline study sampled blood from the largest land mammal, brown bears, to tissue samples of the smallest marine worms, and many species between for known contaminants likely to result from mining activity. Hecla has certainly produced data that shows they are generally complying with their permits for water quality but is it also true that no irreparable harm has or will occur on the National Monument as required by federal law?

In 2013, former Tongass National Forest Supervisor Cole decided against a proposed 30-plus year permit for tailings due to “the issues related to tailings disposal and protection of Admiralty Island National Monument” and he instead opted for a much shorter 10-year authorization. Seeking to avoid a repeat of this dilemma in the next decision, Cole recommended time be spent acquiring new information on how mining operations are to comply with complex legal requirements specific to mining within this National Monument. It is in this spirit that FOA studied clams and found alarming amounts of lead accumulation.

The mine continues to be an economic engine for Hecla and for Juneau; no doubt it produces a lot of lead, zinc and silver and the jobs and cash flow that follow. FOA wants the mine to be successful and yet what will be the cost of continuing to operate for several more decades as federal law allows? As their “dry stack” of tailings continues to grow with huge amounts of accumulating lead and zinc, how will the mine control the dust blowing into the surrounding forest and waters? Who will care for this pile in perpetuity, a scary word that means “forever.” Hecla claims the pile will be reprocessed someday as technology allows but can they take more specific actions now to reduce their tailings instead of increasing them? For more than a year FOA has urged the mine to repurpose some of their tailings into geopolymer concrete.

For more details about what the mine is proposing the Forest Service will hold an open house on April 12 at 6 p.m. at their office on the Back Loop Road. If you’d like to be part of this discussion, Friends of Admiralty will hold our own public meeting on the afternoon of April 22 at Ḵunéix̱ Hídi Northern Light United Church. We welcome you to share your thoughts and to make a difference.

• John Neary lives in Juneau and retired from a 37-year career in the U.S. Forest Service of which 30 years were spent on Admiralty Island National Monument. He is now president of Friends of Admiralty. Columns, My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire. Have something to say? Here’s how to submit a My Turn or letter.

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