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By Sarah Hurst
Mining News Contributing Writer 

Red Dog's standards put it ahead of the pack

Environmental auditors praise world's largest zinc mine in western Alaska for exceptional stewardship in tough conditions


Last updated 12/26/2004 at Noon

Alaska's Red Dog zinc mine has received environmental certification under ISO 14001, becoming one of a handful of mines in North America to achieve this status. Malcolm Ting of the international inspection and certification agency SGS presented a banner to Teck Cominco and NANA Corp. representatives at an Alaska Support Industry Alliance event in Anchorage Dec. 10. When the banner flies at Red Dog, in the Arctic 90 miles north of Kotzebue, it will be the farthest north symbol of a certified mine.

"It doesn't contain specific requirements, but it's a performance-based standard requiring organizational commitment to the prevention of pollution. That's the key goal," said Ting. Red Dog, the world's largest zinc mine, was awarded the certification for successfully introducing its environmental management system (EMS). "Implementing a management system and having it certified takes commitment from everyone in the organization. Not only top management to start the initiative, to provide the impetus and the resources to get it going, but also from every employee in the organization," said Ting.

SGS visited Red Dog for an audit in March 2004, two years and 25,000 man-hours after the EMS project began. They looked at the operation, staff and records to ensure that the mine was in compliance with ISO 14001. "Red Dog's management system demonstrates improvement and growth in areas such as fugitive dust control, water quality, wildlife impact and energy consumption," said Ting. Red Dog will have to work continuously with SGS to keep current, as the international standards are updated every three years in Geneva, and the latest standards were just published in November.

Red Dog is owned and operated by Teck Cominco, under a development agreement with NANA, an Alaska Native corporation. A subsistence committee of eight Inupiat hunters, not employed by Teck Cominco or NANA, advises the companies on environmental issues. These elders from Noatak and Kivalina, the two villages nearest to the mine, can recommend that mining operations be shut down if subsistence resources are adversely affected, such as during the annual caribou migrations. "It has been a privilege working with that group," said Walter Sampson, NANA's vice president for lands and resources, and an Inupiat himself.

NANA opposed all development in the '70s

After the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, when Native corporations were formed and selected their lands, NANA's initial position was to oppose all development, Sampson said. "Until one day the shareholders of the region started to realize that services were coming into the region - light switches, telephones, TVs. Somebody had to pay for those services. Now we needed to develop something to create an opportunity for jobs for the shareholders." Production at Red Dog mine began in 1989 and today around 53 percent of the employees are NANA shareholders. The long-term aim is to reach 100 percent.

Through his experience at Red Dog, Doug Horswill, Teck Cominco's senior vice president for corporate and environment affairs, has been learning about Alaska Native culture. "One of the old salts in our business once said in a meeting that we're walking one path in two sets of moccasins," said Horswill. "It's a partnership that brings together very different perspectives. Once we give the go button in terms of a project construction, time is all-important. Time is very different in the traditional world. Time is a resource to be husbanded: you can take time to make decisions."

Mining has to be compatible with nature

The days of miners disregarding the opinions of local people and leaving a trail of pollution are gone, said Horswill. "Today mining has to be compatible with nature. It's often in remote parts of the world, still, but now the recognition of the rights of the people that live there to protect their environment, to protect their culture, are at the forefront of our business. People today are not prepared just to sit idly by and let the bureaucrats, well-meaning as they may be, make decisions for them in respect of the company, they want to be part of that decision process."

In addition to the mine, there is a port, a road, an airport and two large accommodation facilities at Red Dog. Teck Cominco generates its own power with two power plants. The challenges include moving 1.2 million tons of concentrate away from the plant in a three-month ice-free season, in unpredictable weather conditions, and in an environmentally responsible way.

"We comply with over 155 permits, regulations and agreements," said Jim Kulas, the environmental superintendent at Red Dog. "In that body there are over 3,000 individual requirements that we have to meet on a daily, ongoing basis. That number just keeps growing, too." The water discharge permit regulations alone are more than 50 pages long. "In order to be successful, every summer when we're discharging water we're making over 1,200 measurements," said Kulas. "There's not a drop of water that hits the site that we don't track and monitor and control."


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