The Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly at its latest meeting reaffirmed its interest in transboundary mining issues after it voted to direct staff to prepare a resolution for the Jan. 17 Assembly meeting condemning transboundary mining projects and urging that mine tailings dams be permanently prohibited along transboundary salmon rivers.

Apart from the language added by the amendment, the final resolution will be functionally identical to the draft resolution that accompanied the motion on Monday.

Assembly members Austin Otos and David Landis sponsored the motion. In their sponsor statement for the motion, they said the resolution aims to better regulate mining operations in Canada to protect economies and ecosystems downstream from catastrophe.

"The livelihood of our economy and cultural ways of life are impacted by these mining operations, which are located outside of our geographic boundaries and governmental jurisdictions," the sponsor statement explains. "The transboundary mining issues can only be resolved by requesting that both federal government entities create an international agreement to replace the current 'status quo' memorandum of understanding that has minimal binding and enforceable authority to control these impacts."

The draft resolution references several examples of Canadian mining operations harming Alaska waters, such as the Tulsequah Chief mine in the Taku River watershed in British Columbia, which has been "abandoned and leaching acid mine drainage since 1957." It also references the breach of a mine tailings dam at the Mt. Polley mine in 2014, which caused widespread flooding in nearby lakes and rivers.

Tailings dams are a common structure for containing slurries of minerals left over from the ore extraction process. Tailings often contain hazardous chemicals that can be toxic to wildlife, either from the chemical solutions used to isolate the ore or as byproducts when the tailings minerals react to air and water and produce compounds.

The draft resolution expresses the borough's support for "a pause in permitting, exploration, development, and expansion of Canadian mines along Alaska-British Columbia transboundary salmon rivers" until the U.S. and Canadian governments negotiate and implement a binding international agreement governing watershed protections.

Per the terms of the draft resolution, the watershed protection agreement should be "developed by all jurisdictions in these shared transboundary watersheds" and would be "consistent with the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 and the Rights of Indigenous Peoples."

"This agreement should identify and honor no-go zones and decisions by local residents and Indigenous people on both sides of the international border, ensure mining companies and shareholders are liable for cleaning up their waste and compensating impacted communities for all damages, and enforce requirements for mining best practices which impact these irreplaceable Alaska-B.C. transboundary salmon rivers," the draft resolution states.

Further, the petition would ask that the United States and Canada, in developing an international agreement, "(consult) with local communities, stakeholders, and Indigenous leaders of the Taku, Stikine and Unuk watersheds."

The Assembly passed similar resolutions in 2019 and 2017. Neither of those resolutions referenced a ban on permanent tailings dams along the watershed rivers.

The draft resolution attached to Monday's agenda is largely identical to a template resolution distributed by Salmon Beyond Borders, an Alaska advocacy group to protect fish from transboundary mining waste along the watersheds of the three aforementioned rivers.

Otos in a Thursday phone interview confirmed that he and Landis developed the draft resolution using the template resolution from Salmon Beyond Borders after a member of the Craig City Council encouraged them to pass it.

The draft resolution on the meeting agenda included some changes. Rather than call for an immediate temporary "halt" to new Canadian mining activities, the draft resolution attached to Monday's agenda calls for an immediate temporary "pause." And in the template resolution, the aforementioned "mining best practices," would "(include) a permanent ban on the perpetual storage of contaminated water and wet tailings behind earthen dams along these irreplaceable Alaska-B.C. transboundary salmon rivers."

During the public comment portion of Monday's meeting, Breanna Walker, the campaign coordinator for Salmon Beyond Borders, pointed out the absence of tailings dams language from the actionable portion of the resolution. She praised the Assembly for considering the resolution, but urged it to consider asking for a tailings dam ban in its final resolution.

Walker noted that other Southeast Alaska organizations had approved versions of the resolutions that included the language about tailings dams, she said, including Ketchikan Indian Community; the Organized villages of Kake and Kasaan; the Craig Tribal Association; the Sitka Tribe of Alaska; the Wrangell Cooperative Association; the Sitka and Petersburg Assemblies; and the city councils of Saxman, Craig, Gustavus, Tenakee and Pelican.

Shortly after the resolution motion was introduced, Assembly Member Judith McQuerry moved to do just that, moving to ask staff to include a ban on tailings dams in the formal resolution brought to the Assembly on Jan. 17.

Landis demurred. He explained that he and Otos cut that language from the draft resolution because "my thoughts were, on a permanent ban on tailings dams, I don't know what that means. I know what a pause in permitting means, but a ban on tailings dams ā€” I'm not familiar enough with mining processes."

He elaborated: "We've heard about and been made aware of some terrible incident that some tailings dams have failed in the past at Mt. Polley that caused environmental harm, and I think whatever happened there shouldn't happen again, but I'm not sure that just saying "tailings dam' covers that. ... I just don't know that that's precise enough language, really, to make me feel comfortable with suggesting or requesting that we ban something that we don't understand."

The Assembly voted 5-2 in favor of McQuerry's amendment. Landis and Assembly Member Jeremy Bynum voted against the change.

With the amendment approved, the Assembly's attention returned to the original motion.

Bynum said he was concerned that the time between the publication of the Jan. 17 meeting agenda and the meeting itself wouldn't give Assembly members enough time to fully research and consider the intent of the resolution.

"I've had four days to look at this, basically, and try to come up with an idea about, where are we at? What have we done? What are we actually asking for, for action?" Bynum said. "Are we just wanting to pass a resolution because it's a good idea to say, 'Oh, I support our rivers, I support protection of Alaska waters, salmon, and our industries?' Absolutely, (I) support those things. But I think we're actually trying to cause action through resolution. We should be able to pinpoint specifically what it is that we're actually asking for, not just some generalization."

Bynum moved to amend the original motion to have staff publish the resolution on Jan. 17, but to postpone a vote on the resolution until the Assembly's first meeting in February.

The borough clerk explained that, with the exception of McQuerry's amendment, the substantive text of the formal resolution on the Jan. 17 meeting agenda would be identical to the text of the draft resolution, with some changes to make the formatting consistent with other borough resolutions.

Bynum's motion failed for lack of a second. With the original motion back under consideration, Bynum and Landis expressed support for the original motion.

"I am strongly in support of the resolution. I think it will, as it did before, twice now, come back as a fully resolved resolution and ready to vote on," said Landis. "I think it's fine to understand it more fully, but I think it's also kind of a no-brainer, as far as living at the bottom end of these rivers, and having this activity occurring upstream that we have no say in. This is just simply a consolidated way for us to, as a Southeast Alaska community, express our interest in the matter and our concern over the degradation or potential degradation of those salmon streams. I'm in favor, and I'll vote in favor of moving this forward and seeing it again as a borough resolution."

Assembly Member Grant EchoHawk concurred.

ā€œI appreciate Assembly (members) Otos and Landis for bringing this forward. I know just in my lifetime, growing up in Metlakatla and looking into the ocean is completely different now, as an adult, looking into that same ocean. And any attention that we can draw to this to keep our salmon population, our herring population robust, which keeps our families fed, keeps our economy moving ā€” Iā€™m all in favor of this."

The Assembly will get a chance to consider the formal resolution at its Jan. 17 meeting. There will be time for public comment at the start of the meeting.