Mining in Alaska

A number of contaminants are associated with underground mining operations. Naturally-occurring heavy metals such as mercury, arsenic, and lead, can be released into the environment during the mining process. The use of toxic chemical solvents to process ore is also a concern. It is uncertain how far contaminants may spread around mine sites.

Pollution from mining operations can contaminate water and air, causing harmful exposures to fish, wildlife and people downstream or downwind of mining sites. Alaska Community Action on Toxics works with communities to address their concerns about hazards to community health from both existing and proposed mining operations.

Red Dog Mine

Red Dog MIne Discharge
Red Dog Mine discharge. Photo courtesy of David Chambers, Center for Science in Public Participation

Red Dog Mine is the world’s largest zinc mine and has been ranked the nation’s number one polluter, releasing more toxic chemicals each year since 2000 than any other industrial site in the United States. According to the EPA’s annual Toxic Release Inventory, Red Dog Mine released 533,421,591 lbs of toxic chemicals in 2007. The heavy metals lead and cadmium have been found at higher than normal levels in greens and berries gathered by Kivalina residents due to toxic releases from Red Dog Mine.

The EPA issued a new federal discharge permit to Red Dog Mine in 2009. The permit allows for “mixing zones,” allowing for wastewater to be discharged directly into Red Dog Creek which feeds the Wulik River, used by the village of Kivalina for drinking water and by its Alaska Native residents for subsistence fishing.

Alaska Community Action on Toxics joined the Native villages of Kivalina and Point Hope in a legal appeal of the state’s certification of the Red Dog Mine permit in early 2010.

Usebelli's Two Bull Ridge Mine Ground Truth Trekking, Healy, Alaska
Usebelli’s Two Bull Ridge Mine near Healy, Alaska. Photo by Erin and Hig, Ground Truth Trekking

Coal Mining, Development and Combustion

Although abundant here, Alaskans do not rely on coal as a primary fuel source. Here in Alaska, we are increasingly looking for cleaner sources of energy to supplement or replace fossil fuels. While there is increasing pressure to develop coal for foreign export and domestic use, coal is dirty.

Coal exploration and proposed development threatens human health, and our land, air, and water, with hazardous emissions possible at every stage. Visit our health hazards of coal development page to learn more.

Proposed Donlin Creek Gold Mine

Barrick Gold and Nova Gold Resources have begun the required permitting process to develop a huge open-pit gold mine in the Kuskokwim river delta in Southwest Alaska.  If developed, Donlin Creek mine would cover 27,000 acres.

The proposed mine site contains several toxic metals, including arsenic, antimony, and mercury, that will be released during mining operations. The use of cyanide for processing the ore is another environmental health concern.

Donlin Creek mining operations threaten the health of the Kuskokwim river watershed and the important subsistence and commercial salmon fisheries it supports. The regional hub city of Bethel, and as many as fifty Indigenous villages in the river and delta areas would also be affected.  At the request of concerned residents and tribal leaders, ACAT is providing information to communities about the potential environmental health impacts of mining operations.

Proposed Uranium Mines

We are working collaboratively with tribal leaders and other groups to prevent proposed development of two uranium mines in Alaska: one at Boulder Creek near the Native village of Elim in Northwest Alaska and the other at Bokan Mountain on Prince of Wales Island near the Native village of Kassan in Southeast Alaska.

Uranium is a naturally occurring unstable element that continually breaks down into “decay products” and releases a type of radiation known to cause cancer. In addition cancer, radiation may cause genetic damage, disrupt hormone levels, and reduce blood cell counts.

People can be exposed to radiation associated with uranium: through radioactive radon gas in the air, through inhalation of contaminated dust, or through ingestion of contaminated water, dust, plants and animals. Radon is an especially serious health hazard because it can accumulate in residential buildings or enclosed spaces such as mine shafts. According to the National Cancer Institute, radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States.

Uranium mining in Alaska poses direct threats to the environment and local people as well has having the potential to affect the safety of the wild subsistence foods that people depend on for their cultural and physical sustenance.

Mining Fact Sheets

We have developed a number of mining fact sheets in partnership with Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands (REDOIL).