It was the only facility bigger than a village school we’d seen in two weeks. As we walked the beach south of Kivalina, two buildings towered above the golden tundra grass. Constructed in a flag-inspired pattern of red, white, and blue, the ore-storage buildings at Red Dog Port are the largest buildings in the state – over twenty million cubic feet for the larger one alone. Along with the ore barns, an array of barracks and other facilities speckled the landscape, ending in a dock protruding into the Chukchi Sea. A giant ore ship waited off shore, loaded by an alternating series of barges.
Red Dog is a zinc and lead mine in northern Alaska, located about 80 miles north of Kotzebue in the Northwest Arctic Borough. Operated as a joint venture between the NANA native corporation and the Teck mining corporation, this mine is the second-largest producer of zinc in the world, and the richest mine in Alaska. A 50-mile road connects the mine in the hills to the port on the coast. Trucks haul ore down the road, where it sits in the giant buildings, waiting for the summer’s 3 month shipping season.
Long before we reached the hulking buildings, Red Dog Mine stuck out. Through all our research, Red Dog stuck out as one of the only industries and employers in the region, and the only tax-payer in its entire borough. Red Dog stuck out at the top of the list in the EPA’s annual Toxics Release Inventory. Red Dog stuck out as just the sort of place that needs perpetual treatment to prevent acid and heavy metal release into downstream waters. Red Dog stuck out as the main source of income not just for locals, but for village corporations a thousand miles away.
The iconic symbol of a happy red dog and the words “Red Dog Mine” graced tote bags and sweatshirts throughout the village of Kivalina. A twelve year old boy in the house we stayed in talked about his ambition to operate machinery in the mine when he grew up — a job that would let him continue to live in Kivalina between shifts at the mine.
“Back when they were deciding whether to do the mine,” said one Red Dog worker, “the thing that finally convinced the elders was that young people could stay in the villages. Back when I was a kid, everyone had to leave for boarding school in high school, and there were only a few of the men in town that had jobs. More than the money even, they wanted the jobs, so all the young people didn’t have to leave.”
Over half of Red Dog’s workers are NANA shareholders – native Alaskan residents from nearby towns and villages, and stakeholders in the company that owns the mine. Jim, the mine PR guy, said they’d like to get to 100%, but haven’t had much luck pushing the numbers farther, Despite Red Dog’s training programs, many mining jobs require technical expertise that the locals don’t have. Locals with advanced training often leave for other companies. And part of it is the lifestyle. Like most jobs in resource extraction, Red Dog is a camp job. Workers often spend two weeks in camp, then one week at home before flying out again. It’s a tough life. For anyone responsible for caring for kids, it’s an impossible one, which is probably part of why the workforce is overwhelmingly male.
During a fall storm in 2007, hundreds of Kivalina villagers evacuated to the Red Dog Port. Watching Katmai play in the dining room, our host at the port reminisced fondly about the halls full of children during that storm — unusual in a camp where there are never families, only workers.
The relationship between the mine and its neighbors is complicated. While the village of Noatak is closest to the mine, Kivalina lies downstream. Discharges from the mine end up in the Wulik River, and eventually in Kivalina’s drinking water. Kivalina residents have sued Red Dog over violations of their discharge permits, setting off a multi-year legal battle with the mining company. While Red Dog’s treatment systems are largely successful at preventing discharge of metals and acid, they have routinely violated the permit limits for Total Dissolved Solids. We asked one of our hosts what he thought of Red Dog as a neighbor. He paused for a minute, and answered cautiously, “Except for all the pollution, they’re a good neighbor.” He explained that when the mine got started, it caused a big fish kill in the river, and that even now, villagers could taste the difference in the water.
Jim gave his side of the story as his van zipped along the road connecting the port to the mine. When we brought up Kivalina he sighed. “We got off on the wrong foot with that town,” he explained — confirming the fish kill, but emphasizing that all those problems had been cleared up long ago. From his point of view, the villagers were stubbornly refusing to accept the scientific evidence that Red Dog’s current practices posed no danger to their water or the wildlife they depend on. He wondered if some people in Kivalina had been led to believe that the lawsuits would get them money to help relocate their village. Kivalina is eroding into the sea, the victim of fall storms crashing onto open beaches that used to be protected by ice.
There’s probably truth in both sides of this story. The average Kivalina resident, like the average citizen anywhere, isn’t well versed in the science of water chemistry or in how to evaluate scientific arguments. And the true toxicity of chemicals and pollutants has often become clear only years after their ubiquitous presence – such as for leaded gasoline, DDT, or tobacco, among many others. Locals are left with the unenviable position of deciding who they trust, a process that is inevitably irrational.
Industry proponents often tell you to trust the regulations, insisting that the “rigorous permitting process” would never let them do anything that caused environmental harm. But there’s a difference between a lot of paperwork and fail-safe protection. When something goes wrong (like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the Tennessee coal ash spill, or countless other pollution incidents that never make the news), permitting has clearly failed to prevent it. And though industry is quick to tell you that regulation is a trustworthy protection, they rarely push for more regulations after one of these failures.
Regulations change over time. Jim explained away many of the mine’s current and former problems with some version of “back in the 1980s when this mine got started, no one thought about those things.” Like lead and zinc dust blowing off the trucks and on the road. Like the risks to humans and fish from total dissolved solids in the water.
Back in the 1980s, I suspect mining proponents were telling everyone to have faith in the “rigorous permitting process” just like they do today. Our regulations have never been perfect, and have never been perfectly implemented. Why would we assume they are today?
And what about tomorrow? Jim led me around the mine site, showing me all the complicated and careful procedures they use to treat the water before it is released, and how they make sure their discharge doesn’t overwhelm the creek. He seemed proud of its complexity and thoroughness. But when the mine is gone, all of that must stay.
Red Dog’s closure plan says that when the mine eventually closes, they’ll still need 7 year round workers, 15 in the summer, to run a plant treating 1.4 billion gallons of water each year. To do it, they’ll ship in 7,300 tons of lime annually, creating 70,000 tons of sludge (containing settled out heavy metals) every year. That sludge will have to be funneled into ponds, frozen in sheets in the winter and then stored somewhere, filling the mine pit until eventually it overwhelms the space and a new spot must be found. This will cost $10 million dollars each year. For this to make financial sense, an investment made today must generate $10 million in interest every year…forever.
Jim acknowledged all this, then pushed it aside. “Maybe, eventually, there’s a point where we just don’t care anymore. Maybe society has other issues by then.”
Zinc and lead are useful commodities. Jobs and money are useful too. And maybe society will have other issues by then. In the race to stay alive, maybe no one will care if there are caribou on the tundra or fish in the river. Maybe no one will have the time or the luxury to think about whether they and their children are drinking clean water. A world pockmarked with a toxic legacy will be the only world they’ve ever known. But that’s not the future I’d like to believe in.
Red Dog is actually in a better position than most mines to keep tabs on long-term consequences, as Jim reminded me.. NANA, the local native corporation, owns the land, and operates the mine along with the foreign mining company. With shareholders across the arctic depending on the ecosystem for their subsistence, NANA has real motivation to keep their land and water safe. NANA would like to take over management of the closure bond, taking it away from a government that may someday have other issues, leaving the people of the northwest arctic to tend to Red Dog’s legacy on their own.
A few days after the tour, we stood on a hill in the drifting fog, staring across the red-gold tundra to the airport, road and tailings pond. With the strict rules against photography at the mine site, it was the only way we could get a picture of the mine.
“Red Dog Mine nice?” asked Katmai
“I don’t know,” I told him. “That’s not an easy question.”
Red Dog port uses these gigantic warehouses to store ore through the long winter, when shipping isn't possible.
Red Dog Mine
Facilities situated between the tailings pond (at left) and the mine (not visible.) Waste rock piles are in the foreground.
The riverfront road in Noatak.
Arctic 2010 Leg 2
In the Kivalina School
Somehow yellow doesn't seem so out of place as it usually does.
First, the disclaimer: I’m a dog person and am therefore a sucker for stories about dogs and their loyalty. I know, I know, it’s their nature, but that doesn’t stop me crying over doggie devotion stories. Red Dog is one of these! If dogs don’t move you, you may not want to see this film, but that would be a shame because while the dog – and it is based on a real dog – is the central idea, the film, and novel from which it draws, are about more than “just” a dog and his devotion to a master.
I first came across Red Dog – the (apparently famous) Pilbara Wanderer – several years ago through Louis de Bernières‘ novella (of sorts) which was first published in 2001. It’s a slim little tome and is based on stories de Bernières gathered about the dog, who lived from 1971 to 1979. De Bernières claims in his Author’s Note that the stories “are all based upon what really happened” to the dog but that he invented all of the characters, partly because he knew little about the people in Red Dog’s life and partly because he did not want to offend people by misrepresenting them. John though, he says, is “real”.
There is a simple plot in the book – it tells how Red Dog decides on John as his master and it then chronicles Red Dog’s various adventures in the mining communities of the Pilbara. The film follows de Bernières’ book pretty closely, though it takes a little artistic license, including adding a romance into the mix.
The story – and the film – is set in the Pilbara, the red earth country of Western Australia where mining is the main industry. It was – particularly back in the 1970s – a male dominated place and the workers at that time were mostly migrants:
It was lucky for him [Red Dog] that the town [Dampier] was so full of lonely men … They were either rootless or uprooted. They were from Poland, New Zealand, Italy, Ireland, Greece, England, Yugoslavia and from other parts of Australia too. … Some were rough and some gentle, some were honest and some not. There were those who got rowdy and drunk, and picked fights, there were those who were quiet and sad, and there were those who told jokes and could be happy anywhere at all. With no women to keep an eye on them, they easily turned into eccentrics.
And it is this* that the film, directed by Kriv Stenders, does so well … capturing men’s lives in a male dominated environment, against the backdrop of the starkly beautiful Pilbara. The cinematography is gorgeous, setting the region’s natural beauty against the ugliness (or beauty, depending on your point of view) of a mining environment. The music is what you’d expect, mostly 70s rock including, of course, Daddy Cool, but is appropriate rather than clichéd. And the dog is played by 6-year old Koko with aplomb!
The central story concerns John (Josh Lucas), Red Dog and Nancy (Rachael Taylor), but there are other smaller “stories” – the publican (Noah Taylor) and his wife, the Italian (Arthur Angel) who can’t stop talking about his beautiful home town, the brawny he-man (John Batchelor) who knits in secret, the miserly caravan park owners, to name just a few. Their stories are slightly exaggerated, and there is fairly frequent use of slightly low angle close-ups that give an almost, but not quite, cartoonish larger-than-life look to the scenes. These all work effectively to convey something rather authentic about character and place.
That said, occasionally the humour is too broad and the script a little clumsy – but these are minor. Overall, the film keeps moving at a pace that ensures it never gets bogged down in too much sentiment or romance or adventure or comedy. In other words, it’s not a perfect movie and yet it perfectly captures the resilient, egalitarian spirit of those people in that time. It’s a film I’d happily, if somewhat tearily, see again.
Louis de Bernières
London: Vintage, 2002
*POSTSCRIPT: I quoted this passage from the book for a reason, and then got carried away on another point, but Kate’s comment below reminded me of what that reason was: it was of course to refer to Red Dog’s role in this male dominated environment. Not only does he symbolise the men’s independence and spirit of adventure that brought them to the Pilbara, but he also provides an outlet for their affection. Through this, he forges a community out of a bunch of individuals. As the publican says at the beginning of the film, it’s not so much what Red Dog did as who he was …