The Red Dog Mine: A mechanism for hope and a catalyst for northwest Alaska

by Helvi Sandvik

Four hundred miles north of Bethel is the Red Dog Mine, a living testament to how one mine can be transformative for an indigenous population who primarily lives a subsistence way of life.
Red Dog has improved downstream water quality and fish habitat, increased economic opportunities for the region’s residents, provided employment in a land of few jobs and greatly increased median household incomes.
The mine is associated with dramatically improved graduation rates, better student performance and paths to both vocational and professional careers.
Red Dog is a zinc, lead and silver mine located in the DeLong Mountains of Alaska’s Brooks Range, 90 miles north of Kotzebue and 55 miles from the Chukchi Sea. An open-pit, truck-and-loader operation, it uses conventional drill and blast mining methods, all similar to what is proposed at Donlin Gold. The concentrates produced at Red Dog are trucked 52 miles to tidewater for storage and export at state-owned facilities.
The mine was developed in 1982 under an innovative operating agreement between NANA, an Alaska Native Corporation owned by the Inupiat people of Northwest Alaska, and Teck Alaska, a U.S. subsidiary of Teck Resources, a diversified mining company headquartered in Canada. NANA owns the land at Red Dog and NANA shareholders receive direct and meaningful benefits from development of the mine.
In 2015, the state’s “think tank,” the University of Alaska’s Institute of Social and Economic Research, issued a case study of Red Dog called “Mining and Sustainable Communities.” Here is a summary of its primary findings:
After more than a quarter century of discharging treated mine water, Red Dog has actually improved downstream water quality and fish habitat. The Alaska Department of Fish & Game reports an aquatic environment that is healthier than it was before the mine existed, a healthy benthic environment downstream of the project and healthy fish populations with metals within safe concentrations. The reason why is the quality of the water Red Dog returns to Red Dog Creek. It is so much cleaner than what occurs naturally that the creek now supports a healthy population of Arctic Grayling.
The operating agreement between NANA and Teck establishes a subsistence committee that provides a mechanism to work out environmental and subsistence issues. Elders have power to shut down the mine in certain situations. The committee decides when ore loading can begin at the port to avoid any conflicts with subsistence beluga hunts, and allows for road closures during caribou migrations.
The operating agreement also establishes a shareholder hire preference, sets goals and provides for contracting preference to NANA companies. This has allowed NANA is use the mine to develop subsidiaries like NANA Lynden and NANA Management Services, which now have operations around the world.
The mine supports 715 jobs, with a payroll of $65 million in the Northwest Arctic Borough. The average Red Dog employee earns almost twice the average annual private sector wage in Alaska, and the median annual income for households in the borough has risen from $17,756 to $60,870.
Teck has paid over $1 billion to NANA, which shared $617 million of it with other regional and village corporations. These revenues are an essential source of funding for many YK villages.
Red Dog has had a significant, positive impact on education, helping to increase high school graduation rates from 48 percent in 1980 to 80 percent today. That’s the highest graduation rate of any comparable rural, predominantly Native, school district. The mine provides a realistic career path for many students, especially the 90 percent who are not college-bound.
Mine operator Teck supports workforce development programs, including training and apprenticeship programs and scholarships.
The mine has made a dramatic difference for the younger residents of the Northwest Arctic Borough. They are much better educated, have more employment options, make considerably more money and are far less likely to live below the poverty level.
As NANA points out, “Red Dog is more than just a mine developing essential minerals. It is a mechanism for hope and catalyst for the northwest Alaska and the statewide economy.”
Helvi is the current president of Kidways LLC and the former president of NANA Development Corporation.