Alaska and British Columbia officials met virtually this past week to discuss results of a joint water-monitoring study undertaken in the transboundary watersheds of the Unuk, Taku and Stikine rivers.
The two years worth of data was collected by a program created by a 2015 agreement signed by then-Alaska Gov. Bill Walker and then-BC Premier Christy Clark. Back when the program was released in February, the Alaska and BC governments said the river monitoring program had finished its work, citing other sampling programs being planned by state, federal or provincial agencies.
During Wednesday’s virtual meeting, Terri Lomax of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation noted existing monitoring being done by Alaska tribes, Canadian First Nations, the U.S. federal government and mining companies, according to a KTOO report of the meeting.
“There was no need for additional monitoring from the state of Alaska and British Columbia,” Lomax said on KTOO.
Also discussed during this past Wednesday’s meeting was British Columbia’s plan and progress toward remediating the long-closed Tulsequah Chief mine that continues to leach acid rock drainage into the Tulsequah and Taku rivers watershed about 10 miles upstream of the Alaska border.
The plan, released in April 2020 by the B.C. Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources, proposes core closure and three options for handling mine water discharges. It’s a pathway forward, awaiting a real Canadian commitment to finally address a problem that has continued since the late 1950s.
But the Tulsequah Chief is just one part of the transboundary equation. Across the U.S.-Canada border from Southeast Alaska is the British Columbia’s Golden Triangle that includes the operating Red Chris copper and gold mine in the Stikine/Iskut watershed; the proposed Galore Creek and Schaft Creek open-pit mines in the Stikine watershed; the proposed Brucejack underground mine near the BruceJack Lake, which drains into the Unuk river; and the proposed Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell (KSM) open pit mine in the Unuk watershed, with milling and tailing facilities occurring in another watershed that drains into non-transboundary Nass and Bell-Irving rivers.
We’re don’t begrudge Canada for developing its resources. We hope to see more mineral development here in southern Southeast Alaska.
What’s worrisome is Canada’s continued lack of real commitments to address the potential for harm coming to Southeast Alaska from past, current and planned mining in the “Golden Triangle.”
Southeast Alaska communities, tribes, commercial and sport fishing interests, tour interests and others — including at the state and federal level — have been trying to get Canada’s attentions on this.
In July 2020, for example, the Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission — a consortium of 15 Southeast Alaska tribes such as the Ketchikan Indian Community, Organized Village of Saxman and Metlakatla Indian Community — petitioned the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to, “Declare that Canada’s failure to implement adequate measures to prevent the harms to Petitioners from the B.C. Mines violates rights affirmed in the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, and, in part, to: “Suspend approval and/or operations of the B.C. Mines until (Canada) has thoroughly assessed and addressed the risk to Petitioners’ human rights.
In April, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights informed the SAITC that its petition had been forwarded to the Canadian government, which has three months to respond.
Earlier this month, eight Alaska legislators, including Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan, sent a letter to B.C. Premier John Horgan.
“As Alaska lawmakers, we write to convey the deep concerns of our constituent regarding the potential impacts to our transboundary rivers from abandoned, operating and future large-scale mining projects in British Columbia.”
The letter described the 2015 agreement as an important communication tool, “but without binding international agreements and funding for long-term water quality testing, downstream Alaskans and British Columbia’s remain unprotected from the threat of significant water pollution and associated impacts from upstream mining activity.”
Which is the concern. A problem at an upstream mine becomes the problem of everyone and everything downstream. The lawmakers also noted Alaska and Washington state had requested that British Columbia require mining projects in the transboundary areas to post full reclamation bonds at the time of permitting. Enforcable protections and “robust” financial assurances are key.
We continue to hope that Canada will respond to provide those protections and assurances, like a responsible neighbor should.