Alaskans continue pressing for U.S. intervention on B.C. mines

After meeting with representatives of the British Columbia mining and environmental ministries in Juneau last week, state legislators, Alaska Native leaders and environmentalists urged the federal government to intervene against the development of new B.C. mines that could pollute transboundary salmon runs.

In a press conference March 8, stakeholders called on the federal government to use its powers under the U.S.-Canada Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 to place an immediate temporary pause on the exploration, development and expansion of B.C. mines upstream from Alaska salmon rivers until an international agreement on watershed protections could be reached.

Such an agreement would enforce mining best practices, exercise control over the placement of mines and hold mining companies responsible for cleanup and liable for damages, according to the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. It would involve input from federal, tribal, municipal and First Nations governments, as well as local residents.

The Central Council passed a resolution supporting these goals. Rep. Dan Ortiz, of Ketchikan, along with other Alaska legislators are sending a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken requesting federal intervention.

Nine Alaska municipalities, including Ketchikan, Petersburg, Sitka, Craig, Gustavus, Pelican and others have passed resolutions of support. The Wrangell Borough Assembly passed its resolution of support in late 2021.

“It’s fairly simple,” said Ortiz, who also represents Wrangell. “We’ve heard loud and clear from constituents that Alaskans need enforceable protections. Over 100 Alaska tribes, municipalities, commercial and sportfishing businesses and organizations and thousands of Alaskans have written letters and passed resolutions asking for the Boundary Waters Treaty to be invoked.”

The 1909 treaty states that if Canada or the U.S. interferes with transboundary waters in a way that injures the other country, the interfering country has to provide the same legal remedies that it would if the injury took place within its borders. The treaty also established the International Joint Commission to resolve disputes between the two nations.

B.C.’s allegedly lax mining regulations and lack of accountability for delayed mine cleanup concern groups in Alaska, especially as miners seek to move forward with new projects in the province bordering Alaska.

In the past, B.C. mines have introduced metallic waste into salmon waterways. The defunct Tulsequah Chief mine, 20 miles from the border near Juneau, has been leaking acidic drainage into a tributary of the Taku River for 65 years.

A tailings dam at the Mount Polley open-pit mine, in southcentral British Columbia, collapsed in 2014, sending a slurry into area lakes and rivers and casting doubt on the efficacy of B.C. regulatory oversight.

“Apparently, for the last four years, there’s been a (British Columbia) working group (for mine cleanup),” said Rep. Sara Hannan of Juneau. “But there are no public notifications, no invitations, no agenda shared, no minutes of those meetings … the Alaska public has not been engaged or informed of those and we’ve asked.”

“The answer should be we’re doing everything we can and we’re going to be out there cleaning next season,” said Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson, president of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. “That’s the only acceptable answer ... another mine shouldn’t be considered until they can demonstrate that they can clean up their mess here.”

The Taku, Stikine and Unuk transboundary rivers produce 80% of Alaska’s chinook, or king salmon. One mine — the open-pit Red Chris gold and copper mine — is currently operational on the Stikine watershed, about 50 miles southeast of Telegraph Creek, B.C., and dozens of potential mines are in permitting or exploration on these waters. Nearly 20% of the lands along the three watersheds have B.C. mining claims, according to Salmon Beyond Borders campaign documents.

“The clean water of our shared transboundary rivers has nourished our indigenous peoples here since time immemorial,” said Peterson, “and it is our responsibility to ensure that these rivers can provide for generations to come. Our wild salmon and hooligan populations are struggling. We must do everything we can to protect these resources that are the fabric of our culture.”

Along with the temporary pause on new development, Tlingit and Haida supports a permanent ban on the construction of tailings dams — earthen embankments for storing mining waste — upstream from communities and salmon habitat. Tailings dams “pose a great risk to environmental and human health because these will ultimately fail,” according to documents compiled by Salmon Beyond Borders.

“I’ve sat in meetings where I’ve heard industry talk about tailing dams and they talk about the life cycle of them and they talk about bonding them — I’m an Indigenous person of these lands,” said Peterson. “We think in a generational capacity. They’re thinking of dollars and cents and when they can pass on the responsibility.”

He also stressed the importance of building relationships with other Alaska Native, First Nations and Indigenous groups divided by colonial borders, since downstream tribes in Washington, Idaho and Montana also face impacts from B.C. mines.

 

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