Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO
Alan Zuboff visits the Angoon tidal flats on Admiralty Island almost every day to dig for cockles.

Is It Safe? Mercury Found in Subsistence Seal Meat, Alaskan Mine Suspected

Frank Hopper

There is no Walmart in Angoon, Alaska. A ferry brings in food to stock the town’s only store, where a gallon of milk will run you about $10. As high as that is, traditional Native food carries an even heavier price these days. Mercury, arsenic, lead and other toxic metals suspected of coming from the nearby Greens Creek Mine are showing up in locally harvested seafood, potentially costing you your health.

The rural village of approximately 400 people on the west side of Admiralty Island sits about 60 miles southwest of Juneau in the Tongass National Forest. The population of mostly Tlingit people are 80 percent unemployed, yet they don’t consider themselves poverty-stricken.

“You ask anyone here, we’re not living in poverty. We don’t consider it poverty as long as we have our resources. And now those resources are in question,” tribal president Albert Howard told ICTMN. “Everyone here assumed that our food was safer than anything we can buy at the store. And now it makes you wonder.”

In May of 2015, a harbor seal taken near Hawk Inlet by an Angoon hunter showed abnormally high levels of mercury in organ and muscle tissue samples. Hawk Inlet is the location of the tailings disposal facility of Greens Creek Mine on the northern end of Admiralty Island, where an estimated 90 million gallons of treated mining wastewater is dumped every month into the bay.

The camp at Greens Creek Mine on Admiralty Island. (Courtesy

After the abnormal test results for the Hawk Inlet seal and shellfish came back in February, Howard wrote to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services requesting an investigation be made into whether or not traditional subsistence foods in the area were safe to eat.

The Alaska State Department of Environmental Conservation replied on February 29 with a 10-page letter saying seals are migratory and it’s impossible to say with certainty where the mercury came from. Howard points out this is misleading because seals tend to stay in areas familiar to them and rarely travel more than 20 kilometers from shore. The DEC letter also included charts and tables indicating the local shellfish are safe and contain “acceptable” levels of toxic metals.

The letter thanked Howard for his time and called the original test “citizen science” since it was privately done and was paid for by the conservationist non-profit group Friends of Admiralty Island. The DEC recommended Angoon residents eat no more than four ounces of seal meat per week and avoid eating the liver where the highest concentrations of mercury were found.

“I don’t know anybody that can eat only four ounces of seal,” Howard said, laughing.

The Tlingit of Angoon have always had problems being heard by the government. In 1882 they demanded 200 blankets as payment from the Northwest Trading Company for the death of an Angoon shaman who died when one of the company’s whale guns exploded. This was in accordance with ancient Tlingit law. The company refused and went to the nearby town of Sitka to complain to the government.

The government responded by sending a tugboat fitted with a cannon to put down what they considered to be a Native uprising. They shelled Angoon, destroying 18 houses, 40 canoes, and killing six children.

According to the book, “Tongass: Pulp Politics and the Fight for the Alaska Rainforest” by Kathie Durbin (Oregon State University Press, 2005), after passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971, the Angoon Tlingit formed Kootznoowoo, Inc., an Alaska Native Village Corporation. Part of the settlement meant selecting land the company would use for logging.

“Tongass: Pulp Politics and the Fight for the Alaska Rainforest” by Kathie Durbin. (Courtesy

The Angoon Tlingit had initially refused to log their ancestral homeland, but other Native corporations encouraged them to do it and brought in consultants to convince them. The board members eventually gave in and picked out areas on Admiralty Island to clear-cut.

Then, all nine members of the Kootznoowoo board of directors received a copy of an audio cassette in which a highly respected Angoon elder named George Davis spoke to them in Tlingit. He gave the family history of each director. Then, according to tribal elder Edward Gamble Sr., “He told us, ‘Don’t never consider logging here.’”

Gamble recalls how powerful that message was for them.

“Someone came along to remind us, ‘You guys have no right to take part in the destruction of Admiralty Island.’”

The board changed the land they selected to tracts not on Admiralty Island. To this day they have not clear-cut any of its forests and their commitment to protecting their culture and land remains pure.

Greens Creek Mine, owned by the Hecla Mining Company, recently won approval to expand their tailings disposal facility. For years they lobbied for it, saying without the expansion they’d have to close the mine within a year. The expansion will allow them to run for at least another 10 years.

Hecla courted the Juneau Chamber of Commerce, pointing out how Greens Creek Mine is the largest private employer in Juneau, pumping $47 million in pay and $27 million in goods and services purchased into the city’s economy.

But the Tlingit downstream from them in Angoon receive none of that money, only a few jobs. Because of this, Howard feels the concerns of Angoon residents were never given due consideration.

“The tribe felt like we were ignored during the process.”

Now they request the government look into the monitoring process used at the mine’s wastewater treatment facility. But instead of doing that, the state simply thanked them for their time and for their “citizen science” and told them everything’s safe.

Like the ANCSA legislation, approval of the mine and the recent tailings facility expansion was decided by people far away who rarely visit the rural towns of Southeast Alaska. And like the shelling of 1882, Angoon residents are now being bombarded with toxic weapons. Only these bombs don’t go off right away. Years may pass before nerve damage, cancer or birth defects explode from them.

Subsistence is not just about food. It’s about community, about sharing, and about culture. It’s a way of life. Before the test results came back, the seal taken last May from Hawk Inlet was shared among 10 families.

“That’s how it’s always been in this community. We all take care of each other. And now we try to take care of each other, but we wonder about the foods we’re trying to share.”

You need to be logged in in order to post comments
Please use the log in option at the bottom of this page



akwesabre's picture
Submitted by akwesabre on
General Motors in Massena NY had a very similar effect on Akwesasne Mohawk Nation in Northern NY. In the 50's General Motors set up a large manufacturing plant right along the border of Akwesasne. GM promised jobs and about how much money the town would make from taxes GM would pay the town. Of course, the town was up wind of the pollution and upstream from the toxic plant. Akwesasne at the time was still very reliant on natural resources of fish the St. Lawrence and Racquette River provided. About 10-15 years later the people were getting sick from the fish they were eating; poisoned by PCB's the plant was dumping into the river and burying in the ground. It took nearly 30 yrs from the first lawsuit to finally getting not only the company but the EPA to admit the wrong doings. Now the government is cleaning up the area because its considered a Superfund toxic site. The government said only 50,000 square cubic yards of sediment was poison. Well guess what! They are still digging up poison soil close to 200,000 cubic yards of poison and don't see an end in sight!! I forgot to mention, only a few Mohawks got jobs there and that was to quiet down those dumb Indians. Its become normal to hear of Mohawks who now have some type of Cancer. After reading the article it was like deja vu... The White-eye still don't care, take advantage where they can, poison those troublemakers.