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U.S. Senator Mark Begich on Monday wrote to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack urging that a final decision by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) be made on the permit for the expansion of the tailings disposal area for the Greens Creek Mine near Juneau.
The Greens Creek mine is an underground mining operation currently owned by HECLA Mining Company of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho and is the largest producer of silver in the U.S., it also produces a substantial amount of gold and smaller amounts of lead and Zinc. It is also the second-largest producer of toxic waste in the state of Alaska. Congress provided for the mining at the Greens Creek site in 1980, and by 1987 full scale development began.
Rio Tinto sold its holdings in the mine to HELCA in early 2008 giving HECLA full ownership of the mine.
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The Greens Creek Mine currently stores its “tailings” in a 100-acre dump that is located at the head of Tributary Creek on Admiralty Island. The “tailings” pile stores waste rock that has been milled for its ore content, and low ore content acid-producing rock which is stored in the pile to reduce contamination of surface water. The third type of waste is the waste water which contains toxic metals such as lead, mercury, cadmium and arsenic. This waste water is is pumped into a containment pond where it is treated at the facility and released into Hawk Inlet.
Greens Creek Mine applied for an expansion of its “tailing pile” which would add an additional 60 acres and provide room for another 15 million tons of waste material. The expansion is estimated to provide storage for the waste materials for an additional 30 to 50 years. This is also the estimated life of the mine.
Senator Mark Begich has been advocating that the USFS work with HECLA Mining Company, the owner of Greens Creek, ever since the permitting process began in 2010.
Sen. Begich wrote: “As I have communicated with the leadership of the USFS and high-ranking members of your department, construction of the tailings project needs to proceed in a timely manner. The final EIS has been delayed over the past year, and an expanded area must be ready soon to meet the operational needs of the company. I would appreciate your personal assurance that a decision by the Forest Service will not be further delayed.”