Space is running out in the tailings pile at the Greens Creek Mine, which is generating a growing amount of toxic waste. As a result, the mine is seeking to expand. Allowing this expansion could come at high cost to Hawk Inlet in Admiralty Island National Monument where evidence suggests that the mine has already done harm to the aquatic life and food sources of the inlet.
Hecla’s mine claims pre-date Admiralty Island’s National Monument designation, allowing the company to operate in the monument only if the mine does not create irreparable harm to what the designation protects. Between 1978-1980, baseline studies were conducted to understand the pre-mine health of the inlet and to measure future change resulting from mine operations. Deemed the best way to measure the health of the ecosystem, the baseline study looked at the types and quantities of marine organisms in both Hawk Inlet and also a control area, Young Bay. This information disappeared from public view until it was uncovered by SEACC in 2014.
Since mine operations began in 1987, the State of Alaska has not repeated the baseline study to determine the impact the mine has had on the health of the inlet. Without this measurable knowledge, state agencies and mining companies alike have held up the Greens Creek Mine as an example of effective and environmentally-friendly mine permitting process and project.
A study done by aquatic biologist Michelle Ridgway, in partnership with Friends of Admiralty Island and SEACC, demonstrated that it is feasible to re-visit the baseline study and that toxic heavy metals are impacting the food chain. There is also evidence that some species have disappeared from Hawk Inlet altogether since mining began.
In 2013 the Forest Service rejected a 30-50 year expansion of the tailings pile and instead approved a 10-year expansion due in part, to these unanswered questions. Time is running out, and the current tailings pile will only last another 3-4 years. Without a second study, we risk permitting another expansion without any understanding of the impacts.
Greens Creek could conceivably produce mine waste for another 60 years under the current agreement. If the effects on Hawk Inlet are found to be serious, the mine may have to shut down much sooner.
Another study would mean moving forward, informed by the past instead of being blind to it. In this way, we will be able to protect Hawk Inlet, and the health, safety, and well-being of those who rely on it.