A new federal study says the state's largest mine likely caused reduced caribou and beluga harvests by nearby villagers.
The harvests in the subsistence-dependent village of Kivalina declined substantially after the Red Dog zinc and lead mine opened 20 years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency said in the draft report on the mine's impact on the environment.
For decades, Kivalina hunters have blamed the daily traffic on the 52-mile industrial road connecting the mine to its port, as well as ship traffic at the port, for changing animal migrations and causing hunting problems. The Chukchi Sea port lies 17 miles southeast of the village in Northwest Alaska.
In a section of the 650-page report, the EPA said it agrees with the villagers.
The report is out for public comment through next Tuesday and it is stirring up controversy. Its conclusions about the mine harming subsistence hunting are being questioned by mining officials, state biologists and NANA Regional Corp., the Native corporation that owns the land the mine sits on.
They say the biological data is sketchy and the decline in harvests could be caused by other factors.
Another village, Noatak, 40 miles south of Red Dog, has also experienced declining caribou harvests. But many of its hunters blame increased sport hunting pressure rather than the mine, according to the EPA study.
Opponents of the giant copper and gold Pebble prospect in Southwest Alaska are "absolutely" interested in the study's findings, said Terry Hoefferle, who runs a Dillingham-based Native organization, Nunamta Aulukestai, opposed to the Pebble project. Villages in Southwest Alaska also depend on caribou and they are concerned about potential noise effects from mineral exploration, he said. Pebble could be a much bigger mine than Red Dog.
The federal review was required because the Red Dog mine, about 50 miles east of Kivalina, is seeking permits to keep operating for another 20 years. The mine employs about 450 people, about half of them Native shareholders from the region, and is the largest private employer in the region. The subsistence analysis was requested by villagers, EPA officials said.
In its study, the agency suggested ways that the mine could address the potential disruption to animals -- delaying the shipping season or shutting down the road during migrations, for example. Another idea: Build three 52-mile pipelines to carry ore, wastewater and fuel. Then, the road could be shut down permanently, also addressing the mine's problem with metal-laden dust, EPA officials said.