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America’s Most Toxic Town Is Not Where You Think

A small city in remote Alaska is working to reduce contamination from the nearby Red Dog Mine.

Kotzebue is an Alaskan city located on a sound bordering the Chukchi Sea, about 30 miles above the Arctic Circle. The city features the Nullaġvik Hotel, a number of B&B’s, several churches, and a restaurant called Little Louie’s that serves breakfast burritos and nachos. About 70 percent of the 3,500 residents are Iñupiat Eskimo, and native traditions hold strong too.

Many residents stick as much as possible to a subsistence lifestyle, hunting seal from the sea, and journeying onto a rolling tundra landscape of braided rivers and majestic mountains to hunt geese, ptarmigan, moose, and caribou of the great Western Arctic Caribou Herd, which recently numbered 259,000, the largest in Alaska. But the city also has a less savory distinction, detailed in a little-known EPA dataset called the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI).

The inventory requires industrial facilities involved in manufacturing, mining, power generation, and other sectors to report exactly how much toxic chemicals, from a list of about 650, they release into the environment. Data from the 2016 TRI was released last year, and according to this metric, Kotzebue was the most toxic community in America. The Alaskan town released an astonishing 756 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the environment—that’s more than the famous factory town of Gary, Indiana, the notorious mining town of Battle Mountain, Nevada, and Luling, Louisiana, located along a stretch of the Mississippi River dominated by petrochemical plants and nicknamed Cancer Alley.

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