In 1984, a cyanide gas leak from a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, killed and maimed hundreds of thousands of people in what’s been called the world’s worst industrial disaster.
Despite the raft of environmental laws passed by Congress in the 1970’s and 1980’s, the Union Carbide leaks revealed a gaping hole in the U.S.’s environmental safety net: no laws required companies to regularly report their toxic chemical releases to surrounding communities.
In response, Congress passed the Emergency Planning & Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA) in 1986, which for the first time required certain industry sectors to annually report their toxic releases to land, air and water under a program called the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI). The TRI was and remains unique, because unlike most “command and control” environmental laws, it did not regulate how much of a particular pollutant a company could discharge. Instead, it simply required companies to report their releases, with the rationale that heavy polluters would come under public scrutiny and decrease their pollution emissions voluntarily.
EPA releases TRI data annually, and after its start-up, EPA in 1998 added hard rock mines and mining waste to the reporting requirements. One of the most dramatic findings from TRI reports – which had not been apparent under any other reporting requirement in state or federal law – was the enormous amount of toxic mercury compounds large mines routinely put into the human environment. For example, according to self-reported data from large mines in Alaska, they generated more than 450,000 lbs. of mercury compounds in 2018 alone.
But it doesn’t stop there. Below is a report for all 2018 chemical releases from large mining operations in Alaska, generated using EPA’s TRI Explorer tool:
There’s a good reason EPA requires large mines to report both their on-site and off-site chemical releases: toxic chemicals do not recognize the artificial boundaries of large mine property lines, and the chemical-laden dust from crushed rock at these facilities becomes bio-available when it’s pulled from the earth and exposed to the elements.
But that hasn’t stopped pro-development apologists from condemning TRI reporting from large mines.
When EPA released the 2018 TRI data in early 2020, the agency charged with protecting human health and the environment in Alaska – the Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC) – issued a press release that read like it was written by the mining industry.
In the press statement, Jason Brune – the ADEC Commissioner who previously worked for the Resource Development Council of Alaska and AngloAmerican, the largest mining company in the world – said: “Big mines like Red Dog (near Kotzebue) move a significant amount of material as part of their daily operations, but such actions do not adversely impact human health and the environment. Characterizing such releases as toxic is disingenuous at best.”
If that’s the case, maybe Mr. Brune wants to take his family berry picking along the Red Dog haul road, or around the perimeter of the mine site.
Because the fact is, large mines make toxic metals available to the elements, where they can blow off-site with the wind, or leach off-site in the water.
In a February 14, 2020 article in the Juneau Empire entitled “EPA: Alaska led nation in toxic chemical release,” Dave Chambers, a mining expert with the Center for Science in Public Participation refuted Brune’s claims, saying: “If you let [toxic chemicals from mining] loose they can be a real problem. … That’s basically what mining does to these metallic elements. We’ve seen it demonstrated over and over again that those contaminants get off the mine site, and that’s where you get problems.”
Pamela Miller, the founder of Alaska Community Action on Toxics and a longtime expert on toxics in Alaska, has first-hand experience with Red Dog and other large mines. She says “[t]he mining industry will make the argument this is just waste rock, but the fact is you are bringing this large amount of heavy metal-concentrated ore to the Earth’s surface and exposing that to the elements, and this promotes the oxidization and leaching of these metals, which is why the EPA requires them to report this way under the [toxics release inventory].”
We’ve come to expect big corporations that profit off our public resources to say their operations are harmless. But we don’t expect – and we should not expect – our public servants at ADEC to be just another industry mouthpiece.
So, when the people pushing the massive Pebble mine on Alaska tell us not to worry, ask them how many tons of toxic chemicals they plan to spread around the Bristol Bay watershed every year. And don’t expect ADEC to stand-up for Alaskans.