Earthjustice, the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, and the Northern Alaska Environmental Center announced today that they are appealing a solid waste permit issued for the Greens Creek Mine on Admiralty Island. Admiralty Island is in the middle of the Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska. The permit, issued by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, requires a $24 million bond from Kennecott Minerals Corporation and Hecla Corporation. The bond is like an insurance policy for cleanup costs if Kennecott is unable to pay. The Greens Creek Mine has been in production in the Admiralty Island National Monument, directly adjacent to the wilderness area, since the late 1980s. Earthjustice, SEACC, and the Northern Center contend that the bond amount is inadequate to cover the real cost of restoring the national monument. They also allege that the permit fails to cover all the areas that have the potential to generate acid and risks saddling the state with millions of dollars in cleanup costs. Acid mine drainage may not develop until several decades after a mine closes but once it starts it is effectively impossible to stop and lasts forever.
Tom Waldo, the Earthjustice attorney representing the groups in the appeal, said that DEC has addressed only half the problem at Greens Creek. "They've covered some of the sites that could leak acid into the water, but not others. There's no reason for treating the sites differently, and it puts the public at risk."
"Out-of-state mining companies should pay now, so Alaskans do not have to pay later," says SEACC's Water Quality and Mining Organizer, Shoren Brown. "If this bond is not big enough, Juneau could end up with a toxic waste dump in its backyard and Alaskans will have to pay millions to clean up Greens Creek's mess."
This permit is the first attempt by the state to deal with the long-term effects of acid mine waste. DEC will set an important precedent with this bond. It will determine whether other acid-generating mines in Alaska, such as the Red Dog mine outside of Kotzebue, set adequate money aside as well.
Mine waste at Greens Creek is generating acid and heavy metals and threatens to contaminate surface and ground waters on Admiralty Island National Monument. Acid mine drainage can plague an area for hundreds, if not thousands, of years and can cause serious adverse impacts to fish and wildlife and the people who eat them. Last year Greens Creek produced 2.7 million tons of waste, eight times the amount of waste generated by the city of Anchorage.
Hecla Corporation, co-owner of Greens Creek, is responsible for an estimated $138 million in unfunded clean-up costs at three mines sites in Idaho. State and federal agencies are pursuing legal action against the company to recover these costs. "We don't want Alaska to get stuck with the same bad deal," says Brown.
State and federal agencies have learned the hard way about the costs that inadequate cleanup bonds pose to American taxpayers. In 1999, the Brohm mine near Deadwood, South Dakota declared bankruptcy, leaving taxpayers with a $40 million cleanup bill. Pegasus Gold Corp. declared bankruptcy in 1998, leaving taxpayers with an estimated $30 million cleanup for its mines in Montana. And, taxpayers have been stuck with an estimated $200 million in cleanup costs at the Summitville mine in Colorado.