Study: High levels of toxic lead harms Admiralty Island National Monument

Friends of Admiralty Island want study replicated, mitigation or removal plan for lead implemented

A study commissioned by the Friends of Admiralty Island (FOA) contends that tailings from the Hecla Greens Creek silver mine are likely the primary source of a 50% increase in lead poisoning the food chain in Admiralty Island’s Hawk Inlet, within Admiralty Island National Monument.

If accurate, those conclusions constitute a violation of the regulations under which the largest silver mine in the country is allowed to continue to be the only mine in the United States able to operate inside a federally protected national monument.

Under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), Congress allows Hecla to operate within the national monument in Southeast Alaska until the year 2095, but only if the mine does not cause irreparable harm to the monument’s natural, scientific, and biological values.

“The tailings appear to be responsible for irreparable harm that the mine is required to avoid,” said John Neary, president of FOA.

Investigators measured lead levels in Hawk Inlet clam shells using both living specimens and pre-mining clam shells, some of them hundreds or even thousands of years old that have been preserved in uplifted beaches. Shells accurately archive the water and sediment quality during the life of the clam and thus serve as a valuable time capsule.

Lead can have long-term impacts on natural ecosystems, resident organisms, and human health, and according to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, there are no safe levels of human exposure to lead.


Lead is “a silent killer, contributing to reproductive failure, nerve damage and suppressing immune systems in living organisms,” said Guy Archibald, chief investigator of the study, and the mining and clean water program manager for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council. 

“Lead bioaccumulates in the food chain with increasing concentration and toxicity in the animals and people who consume Hawk Inlet’s wild foods,” he said. “There is enough evidence to conclude that the biological community in Hawk Inlet has already been depleted and harmed.”

Test results show that for many years the lead level of clams in Hawk Inlet reflected gradual global increases until the mine began operations, after which a dramatic increase occurred.

The lead found in post-mining shells also carries an isotopic signature closely matching the lead in the tailings from the Greens Creek mine. This chemical fingerprint is absent in pre-mining shells and in all clam shells from an adjacent bay beyond the mine’s watershed, the study said.

The Forest Service required that a comprehensive biological baseline study be conducted in 1981 prior to the start of mining operations to track long-term impacts, said K.J. Metcalf, a board member of FOA.  In 1978 Metcalf was serving as a Forest Service ranger at the monument.

“Agencies involved in developing the original environmental assessment were adamant that a pre- mining baseline study was essential,” Metcalf said. “It was supposed to be repeated every five to 10 years to measure changes in biological health, but it has never been replicated or used in the three decades of the mine’s operation.”

In 2013, Greens Creek received a 10-year permit from the U.S. Forest Service for expanding the mine, but denied Hecla’s request for a 30-to-50 year expansion permit due to a lack of economic, structural and biological information. That permit expires soon.

“That’s when FOA decided to measure the mine’s impact on the health of the marine ecosystem,” Neary said. “We are advocating for a decision based on science.”

“FOA is not advocating closure of Hecla’s mine,” said Neary. “We are aware of its economic value to our community and we want to see it fully comply with federal law and its permits.”

“The Forest Service is about to release a draft supplemental environmental impact statement for Hecla’s planned expansion of their tailings pile, but they must acknowledge and mitigate the serious environmental degradation that the tailings are likely causing,” Neary said.

Until baseline studies are replicated and a mitigation or removal plan for lead is implemented, FOA has requested the U.S. Forest Service delay issuance of a final environmental impact statement and decision.