Much ado about a very little gypsum
Irrational, unachievable wastewater standard could shut down the Red Dog zinc-lead mine in Northwest Alaska for no good reason
Last updated 3/28/2010 at Noon
The Red Dog Mine is almost surely going to close in a very few short months. Why? They are not out of zinc ore already. It is because there is a little gypsum in their wastewater. Gypsum! What does that portend? Gypsum is a common enough material. It is used in wall boards in home construction. It is made into plaster of Paris. You remember plaster of Paris. Kids use it to make volcano models. You get a little bag of it at the hardware store, add water, and soak newspaper strips in the solution then layer them on one at a time until you have a little mountain with a tin can inserted in the top. Throw a few common household ingredients into the tin can and it erupts. Great fun!
In the good old days, doctors used plaster of Paris to build a cast on you when you broke an arm or leg.
They layered it on and let it dry, and in a month or two when your bones had mended, the cast would be sawn off.
At Red Dog, the zinc concentrate has a little sulfide in it, so it is chemically treated to remove the sulfides and the byproduct is a small amount of dissolved gypsum wastewater.
Certainly, you say, the government would not close down a project like Red Dog because of the presence of modest amounts of a virtually inert contaminant, would it? The answer is - not directly - but environmental groups will.
More than 500 people, the majority of whom live and work in the Kotzebue area, will be out of work.
The primary, if not sole, source of revenue for the community, will be cut off.
The 25 percent net profits royalty that NANA Corp. realizes and shares with other Alaska Native regional and village corporations around the state will vanish.
A primary source of zinc for the world market will dry up.
Secondary jobs in diverse locations inside Alaska and out will vanish.
The cost of zinc will increase.
An irrational, unachievable, Clean Water Act standard will wreak economic chaos within Alaska and beyond.
What, then, is the problem? Simply stated, despite the beneficial qualities of the Clean Water Act, among its more pernicious provisions is the availability for citizens to second guess the implementation of the law. In this instance, an environmental activist group has taken advantage of the window provided to them by the Clean Water Act to challenge a determination by the EPA and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation to allow Red Dog to exceed the water quality standard for totally dissolved solids by waiving the requirement that the amount of gypsum in the water not exceed 1,500 parts per million.
What does 1,500 parts per million mean? Well, a million gallons of water would fill a goldfish pond the size of a football field with three feet of water.
Assuming for the sake of argument that a gallon of dissolved gypsum weighs about eight pounds, we would be talking about 12,000 pounds of dissolved gypsum in that goldfish pond.
Do the goldfish care? No. Are they somehow threatened by this so-called contaminant? Not even a little bit.
Could you or I drink that water? Yes.
Interestingly, the recommended treatment of ingesting plaster of Paris, which kids making volcanoes are always tempted to do, is for them to drink plenty of water before it gets hard.
I don't remember what it tastes like, though.
Perhaps it is fair to say that the world doesn't need Red Dog.
There may be sufficient zinc resources in other places.
Or perhaps we no longer need galvanized nails, buckets and automobile fenders.
Or perhaps it is contrary to the national policy for aboriginal people living in remote communities to have good paying jobs and world-class education opportunities.
Or perhaps there will be a new government jobs program to accommodate more than 500 people thrown out of work due to the grave risks associated with gypsum.
But more likely than not, the reality is that people will be laid off, unemployment will spike, there will be a short supply of cash in Kotzebue and the Northwest Arctic Borough will no longer be able to provide the services that the people in that region have come to expect.
Isn't it time we reviewed the bidding? Isn't it time we told our friends and relatives that a little government is probably necessary but that a lot of government cannot be tolerated by a free society? It is axiomatic that the difference between medicine and poison is the dosage. In this instance at least, it is the government standards that have gone toxic, not the wastewater at Red Dog.