Alaska's Red Dog Mine is uncertain of new permit over water pollution

Environmental groups and Northwest Arctic village residents are contesting a key federal permit needed for the state's largest mine to continue operating.

The Red Dog Mine operator said it might have to suspend production later this year if the permitting dispute — involving water pollution discharges at the mine — isn't resolved this spring.

Stopping production at the zinc, lead and silver mine near Kotzebue would have implications for Native firms, local governments and employees relying on Red Dog dollars. The mine is running out of ore in its main pit and needs federal permission to begin excavating a second pit that could keep the mine going for another 20 years.

Red Dog has struggled with its water discharges ever since starting up two decades ago. The mine has routinely violated some criteria within its federal water pollution discharge permit, resulting in fines and lawsuits. The new permit would legalize the discharges that have been problematic.

Federal and state regulators say it's OK to relax the older permit because the mine's pollution discharges are not harmful and fish populations downstream of Red Dog have actually increased because the discharges contain a smaller percentage of harmful pollutants than the natural flow of water before the mine was built. The new permit would not increase the amount of pollution from the mine, they say.

But the groups appealing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency permit contend that recent research shows the mine's discharges could harm spawning grayling. And, they say, it's illegal for the EPA to relax the mine's previous permit.

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