Southeast Alaska Tribes, fishermen, and local governments, have called for a pause in British Columbia’s mine development in the B.C./AK transboundary region until a plan can be created to ensure B.C.’s aggressive mining program protects our values downstream. The Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission believes this is necessary to protect us from a looming train wreck in the transboundary Taku, Stikine and Unuk rivers.

However, there is one effort that needs to go full speed ahead — the closure and cleanup of the abandoned and polluting Tulsequah Chief mine in the Taku watershed.

This abandoned mine has been spewing heavy metal-laced acid mine drainage into the Taku watershed since 1957. In August 2020, B.C. issued a draft remediation plan, the first step to assuming responsibility for the cleanup and closure. Teck Resources is a responsible party and contributed $1.5 million for site studies; however, it is unclear where the full funding to implement the cleanup and long-term monitoring will come from.

B.C. has taken some encouraging steps toward a final remediation plan, but this is not a done deal. The current plan isn’t really a plan but a call for studies, cleanup and closure options with no specific deadlines. Alaskans need to remain vigilant and keep the pressure on both B.C. and Canada. We need to ensure the highest standards for cleanup and closure, clear timelines, adequate funding, and a specific role and seat at the table for Alaskans.

B.C. adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act into law guaranteeing a voice from those who have shared and successfully managed for millennia what we now call transboundary watersheds. The border is an artificial construct. Salmon, wildlife, water, and pollution move across it as if the border didn’t exist. Southeast Alaska tribes, given our traditional uses of these watersheds, must have a role in managing the Taku, Stikine, and Unuk rivers, including the Tulsequah Chief remediation process.

Yet, B.C. has not shared much info with us here in Alaska, nor given anyone except the Alaska Department of Natural Resources a seat at the table. B.C. needs to open this process up to Tribes and all Alaskans, demonstrate how the remediation planning and implementation will comply with DRIPA, and involve the U.S. federal agencies. There is a lot riding on this. The Tulsequah Chief was a small mine, a fraction the size of those planned in other transboundary areas. B.C. must show Alaskans it can successfully stop mine drainage from a small mine before authorizing the massive ones.

The Taku is usually Southeast Alaska’s most productive salmon river and is a vital regional resource, providing fish for commercial, sport, and customary and traditional fishermen. But, the past several years have shown that king salmon in the transboundary rivers are in trouble, with the Unuk listed as a stock of concern and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game recommending listings for Taku and Stikine chinook. Changing ocean conditions are likely the main cause, which means we must do all we can to protect the biological diversity born in the freshwater salmon habitat. Taking care of the Taku’s world-class salmon spawning and rearing habitat — starting with putting an end to the pollution that’s been degrading it — is now more important than ever.

It was years of pressure on B.C. from local, state and federal agencies, as well as legislators, Tribes, fishermen, and businesses that finally put B.C. on the path to remediation. This broad partnership needs to be revitalized to finish the job.

The Tulsequah Chief is a cautionary tale that exemplifies many of the concerns being raised across the transboundary region, including inadequate mine bonding, bankruptcy laws that favor polluters, poor enforcement of mining regulations, and lack of consultation with downstream interests in Alaska.

The cleanup of the Tulsequah Chief is a test case for B.C. and its mining programs. It’s also a test case of how Alaskans will stand up for the Taku and our rights in these shared watersheds. Only a broad local/state/federal partnership of Alaskans, tribes, business and government will ensure we don’t fail both tests.

Rob Sanderson, Jr. (Haida) is chair of the Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission, a coalition of 15 of Southeast Alaska’s federally-recognized Tribes. Sanderson is also 3rd vice president of the Central Council of Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, Alaska’s largest tribe.