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By FRANCES H. LEACH
United Fishermen of Alaska is grateful to Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Sen. Dan Sullivan, as well as the senators of Idaho, Washington and Montana, for coming together across party lines to urge British Columbia Premier John Horgan to clean up B.C.’s mining sector and to work towards alleviating the threat B.C.’s large scale open-pit mines pose to the province’s downstream U.S. neighbors. All eight senators representing B.C.’s four U.S. border states wrote Premier Horgan on June 13, informing him on what they have been doing to monitor and sustain rivers that flow from B.C. into their states and requesting he increase the province’s efforts to do the same.
B.C. is rushing through more than a dozen large-scale open-pit mines along the major salmon rivers the province shares with Alaska. Meanwhile, a number of its existing mines are already contaminating U.S. waters — like the abandoned Tulsequah Chief mine in the Taku watershed, and the Kootenai River in Montana and Idaho, where fish and bird deformities and deaths are ongoing. In the case of the AK-B.C. transboundary Unuk River, 59 percent of the total land draining water to the Unuk (around 80 percent on the B.C. side of the border) is covered with B.C. mining claims or leases — and yet B.C. regulators give little consideration to the mines’ cumulative effects on downstream fishing communities. In contrast to how things are done in Alaska, B.C. also does not require mine owners to post the full amount of money required to clean up after production — in the worst cases, allowing a mining company to declare bankruptcy and walk away, leaving the province and its taxpayers with the responsibility to cover the costs. As the more than 60 years of acid mine drainage from B.C.’s abandoned Tulsequah Chief mine into the Taku River system clearly shows, that doesn’t work out well for anyone except the mining company. In B.C., the polluter does not pay. (Taku River fishermen have been fighting this battle for decades, and they are not backing down.)
Commercial fishing is Alaska’s largest private sector employer, providing jobs for thousands. Each year, it adds billions of dollars to Alaska’s economy and provides billions of pounds of the best food in the world — including wild salmon — to consumers across the globe. It’s all possible because Alaska’s healthy habitat supports wild salmon, just as it has always done. In Southeast Alaska, the Taku, Stikine and Unuk rivers are the most productive for salmon, essential to Southeast Alaska’s commercial fisheries and economy.
As they’re currently being permitted, B.C.’s large-scale, open pit transboundary mines threaten all of that. UFA is grateful to Sen. Murkowski for leading the effort to engage with Premier Horgan, to Senator Sullivan for his continued leadership and support, and to Congressman Young for long working on this issue.
It’s clear, however, that B.C. is dragging its feet in developing safeguards for the mines, requiring polluters to pay, or ensuring Alaskans and Americans won’t be stuck dealing with contamination and its fallout should a mine waste dump fail and release billions of gallons of toxic water into a salmon river, as B.C.’s Mount Polley mine did just five years ago.
Alaska’s wild salmon and the jobs and the people that depend on them need more assurances. The continued pressure from these members of the U.S. Congress — now united in their call to strengthen B.C.’s safeguards for human health and the environment — is progress. Now, they must continue to push the U.S. Department of State and Global Affairs Canada to take action under the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 to determine how to best manage our shared waterways — and in many instances, the multi-billion dollar fisheries economies of this region. Alaska’s commercial fishermen are depending on it.
Frances H. Leach is executive director of the United Fishermen of Alaska.