Is Mining Threatening Our National Parks in Alaska?

Cape Krusenstern National Monument. NPS photo.

Editor's note: Mining is a necessary industry in today's world. Without it we wouldn't drive cars, talk on the phone, or send emails. That said, it must be, and it can be, done responsibly and environmentally sensitively. From the National Parks Conservation Association's Alaska regional office, Program Manager Joan Frankevich shares her thoughts on mining in that state and its impacts -- both existing and potential -- on national parks.

In the far northwest corner of Alaska, adjacent to Cape Krusenstern National Monument, the Red Dog Mine is seeking to expand its operations and extend the life of the mine. While exploring this business opportunity, the Red Dog Mine also has the opportunity to demonstrate that its trucks, which routinely carry hazardous pollutants through Cape Krusenstern from the largest zinc mine in the world, are not continuing to do harm to the monument’s vegetation, wildlife and water resources.

Until studies prove contamination from the mine’s transportation route is no longer occurring in the monument, and past contamination is either cleaned up or found to have few effects on the national monument’s ecosystem, the National Parks Conservation Association must oppose the current plans for mine expansion.

Cape Krusenstern National Monument was created in 1978, 11 years before the Red Dog Mine opened, to protect a series of archaeological sites depicting Alaska’s rich human history—including every known cultural period in arctic Alaska. Additionally, the monument was established to protect wildlife habitat and the viability of subsistence resources. In fact, Inupiat people today practice a subsistence lifestyle within the monument, including berry picking, caribou hunting, and salmon fishing. Yet, its establishment as a monument hasn’t afforded Cape Krusenstern adequate protection.

In 2004, national park scientists found astonishingly high levels of cadmium, lead, and zinc in moss growing several miles on either side of the mining haul road, which runs through Cape Krusenstern National Monument. The source of this contamination is “fugitive dust” – dust blown from trucks traveling 19 miles along the road between Red Dog Mine and the port on the Chukchi Sea.

The toxicity of at least two of the heavy metals found in the monument—lead and cadmium—is significant. The harmful effects of lead on humans in particular are well known, leading to its removal from water pipes, gasoline, and paint. Lead can affect almost every organ in the body and cause irreversible brain damage. Children and developing fetuses are especially vulnerable to even minute amounts of lead.

The level of lead contamination found in Cape Krusenstern is extremely high with moss found along the haul road containing approximately 400 parts per million (ppm) of lead, with hot spots reaching up to 900 ppm. By contrast, natural background levels of lead are only between .6 ppm and 2.2 ppm in northwest Alaska.

Today, much of the moss and lichen that was growing near the road has died due to the toxic dust. Over time, as the compounds in the dust weather, fish, birds and mammals further up the food chain will more readily absorb them. Unfortunately, consequences of past contamination will be with us for many, many years to come.

Recently, in a highly unusual move, the Environmental Protection Agency withdrew its approval of a water permit for the Red Dog Mine expansion because it relied on outdated water use and dust emissions data. Teck Cominco, the owner of the Red Dog Mine, is to be commended for recent improvements to help contain dust and minimize contamination of the environment. Unfortunately, it is unlikely enough to prevent continued contamination, much less rectify past problems.

As Red Dog Mine considers expansion, exploration is under way in southwest Alaska for another massive mine. If developed, Pebble Mine will be the largest open-pit mine in North America and will be located just 14 miles from the border of another national park site—this time Lake Clark National Park & Preserve. The State of Alaska and developers might construct a 104-mile haul road parallel to the southern boundary of the park, and other new mining claims continue to be staked along Lake Clark National Park’s western boundary in anticipation of future infrastructure to support extensive mineral development in Bristol Bay’s headwaters.

Are we prepared to prevent history from repeating itself? Mine expansion—whether expansion at Red Dog or new development at Pebble—is irresponsible if it harms our nation’s most sacred places: the lands and waters of our national park system.