By Alex McCarthy, Tuesday April 30th
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Jill Weitz is the executive director of Salmon State. Weitz is the campaign director of Salmon Beyond Borders. The article has been changed to reflect that.
Experts from both sides of the Alaska-British Columbia border agreed Tuesday that the British Columbia government is not preparing well enough for possible future mining disasters.
Eight people testified to the House Fisheries Committee on Tuesday at the Capitol, all of them urging including Jason Dion from Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission (an organization that looks to promote economic and environmental prosperity). Dion’s presentation centered around how the provincial government doesn’t have a financial assurance policy for mining disasters — in other words, a mining company might not have to pay for the whole cost of an environmental cleanup.
“When a company knows it might not bear all of the cost of a risk imposed or the harm it might cause, it has less of an economic incentive to reduce that risk,” Dion, who testified by phone, said. “From our perspective, that’s a really, really important shortcoming.”
For Alaska — which has more stringent mining standards than British Columbia — that’s a big deal. Chris Sergeant, a research scientist at the University of Montana who is based in Alaska, gave a presentation to the committee running through Southeast Alaska watershed statistics. The presentation stated that almost 90 percent of Southeast Alaska households use salmon in some capacity, a number that he said underscores the importance of caring for the region’s rivers.
He also showed that 19 percent of the drainage area in the Taku, Stikine and Unuk rivers’ watersheds is covered by mining claims and leases. He showed that 59 percent of the land area in the Unuk River watershed is covered by mining claims and leases.
Rep. Geran Tarr, D-Anchorage, asked during the meeting why there are so many mining projects in British Columbia that have popped up in recent years. Jill Weitz, campaign director of Salmon Beyond Borders, answered her by saying the completion of the Northwest Transmission Line in 2014 brought electricity to the region of northwest British Columbia.
Weitz pointed out that only about 2,000 people live in that region of British Columbia, compared to the 75,000 people living in Southeast. “Many folks consider that part of B.C. the middle of nowhere, where we maintain that it is the center of everything for us,” Weitz said. “So you have power generating to a very mineral-rich region and not many people there to have a voice and organize around.”
The main example used throughout Tuesday’s meeting was the Mount Polley Mine, which became well known in 2014 after the dam on its tailings pond broke and dumped years of mining waste into nearby Polley Lake and rivers in the watershed. Imperial Metals, which owns the Mount Polley Mine and others in B.C., is in dire financial straits and many environmental organizations are worried that Imperial could end up declaring bankruptcy and walking away from its mines without paying for the cleanup.
Tuesday’s hearing was set up in part because 22 Alaska lawmakers signed a letter April 9 asking Gov. Mike Dunleavy and Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer to continue the Transboundary Working Group. The group, established by former Gov. Bill Walker and former British Columbia Premier Christy Clark in 2015, aims to transparently share information and best practices, collaborate on data gathering and research, and to discuss draft permits and authorizations.
Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak and chair of the House Fisheries Committee, said at the end of Tuesday’s meeting that she’s looking to pen her own letter to the administration about this issue. The letter will carry a similar tone to the April 9 letter, asking the administration to engage with Alaskans and with the state’s congressional delegation and carry on the work of the previous administration on finding ways to protect the region’s watersheds.
She said she hopes to send it with the support of the rest of the committee. The Dunleavy administration didn’t immediately respond to an email for comment on where transboundary mining issues rank on the governor’s priority list.
“It’s not about resource development versus conservation,” Stutes said. “We are simply asking our neighbors across the border to adhere to best and safe practices in mining in our shared watersheds, which is clearly something they have a poor track record with.”
Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak and chair of the House Fisheries Committee, speaks during a meeting about transboundary mining on Tuesday, April 30, 2019. (Alex McCarthy | Juneau Empire)
By Jacob Resneck, CoastAlaska April 24, 2019
State lawmakers from both the House and Senate are urging the Dunleavy administration to continue the state’s engagement with British Columbia over pollution threats from transboundary mining.
Twenty-two legislators sent a letter to Gov. Mike Dunleavy and Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer earlier this month calling on them to continue efforts that began with their predecessors.
The Bilateral Working Group on the Protection of Transboundary Waters was established in 2015 by then-Gov. Bill Walker and B.C. Premier Christy Clark.
It’s since met three times. This year it’s Alaska’s turn to host the meeting with a teleconference slated for mid-June.
Republicans, Democrats and independents from both houses signed the letter. It notes that a dozen large-scale, open pit and metal mines are either permitted, operating or lie abandoned in transboundary watersheds that flow into Southeast Alaska.
“Without proper management in place to evaluate the potential cumulative effects of multiple mining projects and without robust financial assurances for the projects,” the letter states, “these Canadian mining developments threaten to permanently impact the water resources and economic drivers of Southeast Alaska.”
Gov. Walker’s administration had urged B.C. to require new mines to post a full reclamation bond to cover the cost of cleanup and closure. The letter urges these efforts to continue.
The governor’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
By Claire Stremple, KHNS-Haines April 18, 2019
Two of the nation’s 10 most endangered rivers are in Southeast Alaska.
That’s according to American Rivers, a conservation group opposed to mining and energy development in wilderness areas.
Kimberley Strong is president of the Chilkat Indian Village of Klukwan. Her village sits on the Chilkat River, recently named the sixth-most endangered river in the nation by American Rivers.
“When you look around the village here, and we’re on the banks of the Chilkat River, you’ll see just in eye shot here there’s two smokehouses to my right, three smokehouses to my left,” Strong said while standing on a bank of the Chilkat River in front of her home.
“This is really a big part of our livelihood, is traditional food gathering. The salmon that runs in the Chilkat River has been part of our life for thousands of years. To endanger that is life-threatening to us,” she said.
Klukwan is one of the longest continually-inhabited places in North America. The name means “eternal village.” The Tlingit have lived on this river for thousands of years, feeding off the rich salmon runs. But Strong said mining upstream could pose an existential threat to all that.
“This is a food sovereignty issue,” she said. “It’s having access to the natural resources that are around us.” Strong said in Klukwan, the Chilkat is more than a river: It’s the history of a people and their food source. That’s why she’s fighting for the resource.
Photographers take pictures of eagles feeding on salmon in the Chilkat River. The river flows through the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. (Photo by Emily Files/KHNS)
American Rivers, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., has been releasing its “America’s Most Endangered Rivers” report for over three decades. Communications Director Amy Kober said the purpose of their annual endangered rivers list is to raise national awareness about rivers they consider to be threatened.
“It’s powerful because it’s a call to action. This report showcases 10 rivers facing urgent threats,” Kober said. “These rivers aren’t the worst rivers in the country or the most polluted rivers in the country, but they are rivers really at a crossroads.”
Kober said people have taken action on behalf of rivers they’ve highlighted in the past. She said attention generated by the report helped spare the Hoback River in Wyoming from nearby natural gas development, and it helped spur cleanup actions on the St. Lawrence River in New York and Canada.
The Chilkat River is one of two Southeast Alaska rivers listed in the 2019 report. The Stikine River, which flows out of British Columbia and empties near Wrangell, is 10th.
Both are listed for the same reason: mining development.
On the Chilkat, Constantine Metal Resources is a Canadian company with exploratory permits for a potential mine in the upper watershed. The company has said any future operation would be safe and bring good jobs to the region. A message left with Constantine’s Haines office wasn’t immediately returned.
Not everyone is convinced. Gershon Cohen of Alaska Clean Water Advocacy lives in Haines. He said that Constantine’s Palmer Project would store mine waste that could threaten the ecology.
“There is just too much history of large mines polluting public waters and destroying fishery resources, that we felt this can’t be ignored,” Cohen said.
The Chilkat has runs of all five salmon species that are caught by sport anglers for subsistence and commercial use. It also flows through the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, where those fish feed one of the largest gatherings of bald eagles in the world every fall.
The Stikine River Delta, as seen from the air. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska)
American Rivers says the Stikine River faces similar threats. Like the Chilkat River, the Stikine is in an active seismic zone — it flows over the Queen Charlotte-Fairweather Fault. There’s a working mine at its headwaters over the border: The Red Chris mine is operated by Imperial Metals, the same company responsible for a massive tailings dam failure at Mount Polley mine in 2014.
Transboundary mining has long been a source of contention between Alaska and British Columbia. Critics say Alaska stands to receive pollution downstream but none of the economic gains from the mine.
The Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission has accused the province of British Columbia of violating the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909, which prohibits the United States and Canada from polluting each other’s waters.
Kimberley Strong on the banks of the Chilkat River by her home. (Photo by Claire Stremple/KHNS)
Klukwan, on the banks of the Chilkat River, has about 100 residents. Strong said she’s glad Chilkat is recognized nationally as a treasure worth protecting.
But for her, it’s not just a cause — it’s home.
“To hear that other people are now raising up and recognizing the threats that a mine could have on our life here in the valley is heartwarming. And, really, kind of scary, this recognition that it is being threatened. That experts believe it’s being threatened is something to listen to,” she said.
Doyle Rice, USA TODAY Published 8:00 a.m. ET April 16, 2019 | Updated 2:24 p.m. ET April 16, 2019
Sure, we know about endangered species, but did you know there are endangered rivers, too?
Environmental group American Rivers released its annual list of the USA's top 10 "most endangered" rivers Tuesday, and this year, the top "dishonor" goes to New Mexico’s Gila River. The river got the top spot due to the grave threat that climate change and a proposed diversion project pose to New Mexico’s last free-flowing river.
"New Mexicans can’t afford to dry up their last wild river,” said Matt Rice, Colorado Basin director for American Rivers. “Ruining the Gila River with an expensive diversion project doesn’t make sense when there are better, more cost-effective water supply options.”
These rivers aren't the nation's "worst" or most polluted rivers. According to American Rivers, three factors put rivers on the list: the significance of the river to human and natural communities; the magnitude of the threat to the river and its nearby communities, especially in light of a changing climate; and a major decision that the public can help influence in the coming year.
“Climate change is striking rivers and water supplies first and hardest,” said Bob Irvin, President and CEO of American Rivers, in a statement. “America’s Most Endangered Rivers is a call to action. We must speak up and take action, because climate change will profoundly impact every river and community in our country."
In addition to the 10 most troubled rivers, American Rivers also named the Cuyahoga River in Ohio as the "River of the Year." The title celebrates the progress Cleveland has made in cleaning up the Cuyahoga, 50 years after the river’s infamous fire that helped spark the USA's environmental movement.
American Rivers has been compiling an annual list of the nation's most endangered rivers since 1984.
Here is the list of American Rivers' top 10 most Endangered Rivers.
1. Gila River, New Mexico
2. Hudson River, New York
3. Upper Mississippi River, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri
4. Green-Duwamish River, Washington
5. Willamette River, Oregon
6. Chilkat River, Alaska
7. South Fork Salmon River, Idaho
8. Buffalo National River, Arkansas
9. Big Darby Creek, Ohio
10. Stikine River, Alaska
SALMON BEYOND BORDERS is a campaign driven by sport and commercial fishermen, community leaders, tourism and recreation business owners and concerned citizens, in collaboration with Tribes and First Nations, united across the Alaska/British Columbia border to defend and sustain our transboundary rivers, jobs and way of life.
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