America’s Most Toxic Town Is Not Where You Think

Kotzebue, Alaska, has around 3,500 residents, most of whom fish and hunt for food in the traditional way. But the small town above the Arctic Circle is listed by the EPA as the most toxic community in America. In 2016, Kotzebue released 756 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the environment. Those chemicals find their way into the air, the sea, the seals and caribou that people eat, and into the water supply. It comes from the Red Dog Mine, one of the world's largest lead and zinc operations. The company that runs the mine complies with state and industry regulations, yet the National Park Service, which monitors the Cape Krusenstern National Monument, report high levels of lead and cadmium in the area that the mine's trucks travel through. the Native village of Kivalina, about 90 miles up the coast from Kotzebue—and located closer to Red Dog—there is growing concern about the mine. The village is located near the mouth of the Wulik River, a source of fish and water for villagers. One of the creeks that flows into the Wulik is the Red Dog, which begins near the Red Dog Mine. Treated mine wastewater is discharged into the Middle Fork of Red Dog Creek under an Alaska Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit.

“We started hearing and seeing the people getting sick, especially the newborns, with issues we have never seen before,” said Millie Hawley, the tribal transportation coordinator.

She described newborns being born with heart issues, including one infant that had to travel hundreds of miles for heart surgery, and said kidney problems were an issue for teenagers. “We believe it is from drinking the Red Dog Mine over the last 25 years,” she said, “but there is no proof of that.”

Read about the Red Dog Mine and the polluted towns and villages around it at National Geographic.

(Image credit: Katie Orlinsky/National Geographic)

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