State raises concerns about Red Dog Mine spill cleanups

On June 20, 2019, a truck rolled over on the road to Red Dog Port, spilling about 5,300 pounds of zinc concentrate. (Alaska Department of Natural Resources photo)

Following a truck rollover earlier this summer, emails show state regulators raised concerns about how the Red Dog Mine near Kotzebue is cleaning up after spills on the sensitive tundra.

To get to market, material mined at Red Dog has to be trucked 55 miles to port. According to Red Dog and Teck, the Canadian company that operates the mine, about 10,000 truck trips are made every year. State records show five times since 2012, the trucks have rolled over, leading to a spill.

The most recent incident happened on June 20, when approximately 5,300 pounds of zinc concentrate fell out onto the tundra.

While coordinating the cleanup, emails between workers at the Alaska Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Environmental Conservation show the state had issues with how past spills were addressed.

In an email sent to a DNR employee on July 5, a DEC employee wrote “there are a number of roll over spill sites to tundra that need further work.”

Another email sent on July 2 from a DEC employee to DNR noted the agency was working with Red Dog to assess the spill sites and there were a few that “I would like them to basically completely re-do.”

The emails were obtained by Alaska Public Media through a public records request.

In an interview, Tom DeRuyter, the northern Alaska region state on-scene coordinator with DEC, said he’s not aware of any kind of gross negligence on the part of Red Dog, and that given the many truckloads that travel down the road every year, there is always going to be some risk of a spill. But DeRuyter said the state is concerned about lasting harm to the tundra after spill cleanups.

“When you start excavating tundra you do really severe damage to the tundra itself,” DeRuyter said. “That takes long-term restoration, and it would be great if we could figure out a way to remove the zinc concentrate without doing the severe damage to the tundra root system that you do with an excavator.”

Tundra can be difficult to rehabilitate after it is dug up. In the emails, workers discussed nonnative plant species that were starting to grow in previous spill sites.

“Successful tundra rehabilitation can be challenging due to the presence of frozen soils and shorter growing seasons,” Patty Burns, an environmental coordinator with DNR, said in an email. “As a result, we try to minimize excavation in tundra during spill responses. Our understanding of tundra rehabilitation has improved in recent years as we’ve learned from similar rehabilitation projects on the North Slope.”

Burns said Red Dog has requested that regulators review past sites with them to make sure they are complying with state requirements going forward.

In the case of the most recent spill, Red Dog did apply for a permit to excavate tundra. According to documents submitted to the state, much of the zinc concentrate was removed from the environment using a vacuum truck.

Greta Schuerch, spokesperson for Red Dog and Teck Alaska, declined an interview request.

In an email, Schuerch said Red Dog works with all involved parties, including government agencies and a subsistence committee made up of Noatak and Kivalina residents, to “ensure a full cleanup of every incident is undertaken and there is no long-term environmental impact.”

Red Dog and Teck said the trucks carrying the zinc concentrate to port are mechanically limited to a speed of 45 mph and the drivers are not paid by the load.

“Every incident is fully investigated to determine the cause and take steps to prevent a re-occurrence,” said Scheurch.

Reporter Nat Herz contributed to this story.

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