Angoon mayor unsatisfied with state response to tainted subsistence seal

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Angoon’s Mayor Albert Howard is trying to protect his village’s way of life. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)
Angoon’s Mayor Albert Howard is trying to protect his village’s way of life. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

Hawk Inlet is healthy according to state officials. That’s the message Angoon received about three weeks after concerns were raised about high levels of mercury found in a subsistence seal. But Angoon’s mayor doesn’t feel comforted by the report.

In the 20-page document, the state agencies say they appreciate the “citizen science” used to determine the seal had high levels of mercury.

The letter cautions children, the elderly and pregnant woman against eating certain parts of of an older seal, like the liver. For everyone else, the department recommends limiting consumption. Other traditional foods, it says, are safe to eat.

But Angoon’s Mayor Albert Howard said he doesn’t feel heard by the agencies, and the information isn’t practical.

“When you spend 40-something dollars for gas in Angoon to go hunting, you’re going to make the most of it,” Albert said. “If you see one seal and it happens to be the older one, that’s a risk people are taking and no one’s going to eat only 4 ounces of seal meat.”

Ali Hamad, an environmental public health program manager with the health department, said older seals store up more mercury in their organs. They can swim far distances.

“So chances are that seal picked up some of the mercury from Hawk Inlet and from outside Hawk Inlet, depending on where that seal spent its life,” Hamad said. “Most of the mercury leaves the body but some of it stays in the body and with age it keeps accumulating.”

The place where the seal was harvested is also home to Hecla’s Greens Creek Mine, which, according to the letter, is meeting its permitted conditions. But it doesn’t discount the origin of the metals could have came from there — historical mining could be a factor. So could natural occurrences, like drainages and streams.

K.J. Metcalf says he found some parts of the letter puzzling. He’s part of the environmental advocacy group that took the tissue sample of the seal. And he said some of his concerns weren’t addressed. His group and Angoon questioned why a 1981 baseline study, before the mine was up and running, isn’t being reproduced to test the quality of the water.

“And I’m really curious as to why there’s such reluctance to use it because I think it’s the gold standard that’s going to be the gold standard that’s going to give a definitive determination as to the health of the inlet,” Metcalf said.

Metcalf said the study, which was lost and rediscovered in an old Forest Service files, offers a better glimpse of the pre-mining conditions.

“I’m not discounting the value of a baseline study of this nature,” said Allan Nakanishi. He oversees wastewater discharge permitting for mining facilities for the state’s water division.

He said the testing that’s done now is more streamlined, less broad. The 1981 version would require more resources, and the state could have difficulty imposing and monitoring it under the mine’s current permit.

“And at this point we feel that, based on the data that we have on hand, that the environmental monitoring required under that permit is adequate to make the determination if harm is being caused,” Nakanishi said.

He said the 1981 baseline study wasn’t brought up in the letter because it’s been addressed in the past. The letter’s focal point was the safety of subsistence food, gathered near Hawk Inlet.

But when it comes to where the seal picked up so much mercury, Nakanishi isn’t sure.

“That’s a difficult question.”

He said yes, the most obvious source appears to be the Greens Creek mine. But mercury is persistent, and the mercury that ended up in this seal could have come from almost any discharge into the Pacific Ocean.

“Some of which probably isn’t under U.S. jurisdiction for regulation under the Clean Water Act. It’s difficult to say or pinpoint what is the source,” Nakanishi said. “It could be an accumulative source from other countries, from the United States, from illegal dumping, it’s difficult to pinpoint.”

The Alaska Environmental Public Health Program has offered hair sample tests to Angoon’s residents to determine their levels of mercury. The state is considering the possibility of testing more seals.

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