By Jay Julius, Pete Knutson and Mitch Friedman
Special to The Seattle Times
Good fences make good neighbors, wrote Robert Frost. Border walls aside, that remains true of Canadian mines upstream of Washington waters.
We love our Canadian neighbors and value much of what we share. But due to geologic fate, mining waste is something British Columbia may share in profusion with us in Washington, as well as Alaska, Idaho and Montana. It’s something we should worry about, and that Olympia must take action on.
Some of Washington’s greatest rivers begin in B.C., with big mines existing or proposed on the slopes above them. Last year, a notorious corporation applied to mine the unprotected “Donut Hole” in the Skagit headwaters, birthplace of Puget Sound’s largest river. Should a mine be developed and spill arsenic or other heavy metals, the toxic pollution would flow downstream into Washington, threatening salmon, orcas, fishermen, and local tribes and communities. These are unacceptable risks.
The Legislature recently held a hearing on Senate Joint Memorial 8014, which is intended to convey concerns to Victoria, B.C., cautioning against mining in the Skagit River headwaters. We thank the sponsors, Sens. John McCoy and Jesse Salomon, and support passage. We’re also grateful to Rep. Debra Lekanoff for her sponsorship of the companion House Bill 4013.
This forest land about 26 miles southeast of Hope, B.C., drains into the headwaters of the Skagit River. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)But this problem is not limited to the mighty Skagit. Major mines operate upstream of the Columbia, Kettle and other transboundary waters. The gorgeous Similkameen River drains through the Canadian side of the North Cascades, flowing into the Okanogan at Oroville. In its upper reaches near Princeton, a massive mine continues to produce toxic slurry. That slurry is held in a tailings pond behind an earthen dam hundreds of feet high, three times the size of the Mount Polley tailings pond that breached catastrophically in 2014, spilling more than a billion gallons of pollution into central B.C. salmon spawning habitat.
The company responsible, Imperial Metals, is the same outfit that wants to mine the Skagit River headwaters.
If waste from a Washington mine ended up in British Columbia, the liability would be covered because state law requires mines to post bonds sufficient to cover 100% of the cost of reclamation. B.C. has some requirements for financial assurances, but the province often does not require mine operators cover all the costs of cleanup. Government reports show there is at least a $1 billion gap in unfunded mining liabilities in B.C.
This isn’t an idle threat for Washingtonians, as a century of mercury pollution from a smelter near Trail, B.C., has so contaminated the Columbia River and Lake Roosevelt that cleanup will cost more than a billion dollars. Litigation to cover those costs has dragged on for decades due to the lack of regulation.
If mining corporations are required to post financial assurances upfront, not only will remediation and compensation occur more quickly after an accident, but the companies will be far more motivated to act responsibly and minimize the potential for disaster.
As many as 33 mines are either active or under exploration in B.C. within 60 miles of the Washington border. There are dozens more within a similar distance of Alaska, Idaho and Montana. Alaskans also are mobilized against the risk, including native tribes, local communities and fishermen, many of whom return to port in Seattle. Consequently, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, recently led a bipartisan letter of concern to Canada signed by all eight senators from the four border states.
Tribal, fishing and conservation interests are now looking to Olympia to engage in defense of our healthy watersheds. We call on the Legislature to pass SJM 8014 and to take up and pass a broader memorial calling on Victoria to require financial assurances for all mines.
Gov. Jay Inslee and state lawmakers should do all they can to encourage B.C. to adopt the requirement that mine operators cover the costs of cleanup and otherwise update its Mines Act.
It’s only neighborly.
Jay Julius is a fisherman and former chairman of the Lummi Nation.
Pete Knutson is the owner of Loki Fish Company and director of the Puget Sound Harvester’s Association.
Mitch Friedman is the founder and executive director of Conservation Northwest, an organization working on behalf of wildlife and wild lands in Washington and British Columbia.
By Christopher Sergeant and Julian D. Olden
Scars from large mining operations are permanently etched across the landscapes of the world. The environmental damage and human health hazards that these activities create may be both severe and irreversible.
Many mining operations store enormous quantities of waste, known as tailings, onsite. After miners excavate rock, a processing plant crushes it to recover valuable minerals such as gold or copper. The leftover pulverized rock and liquid slurry become tailings, which often are acidic and contain high concentrations of arsenic, mercury and other toxic substances.
Mining companies store tailings forever, frequently behind earth-filled embankment dams. Over the past 100 years, more than 300 mine tailing dams worldwide have failed, mainly due to foundation weakening, seepage, overtopping and earthquake damage.
We are research scientists studying how humans affect rivers. In our view, the damage caused by stored mine waste often outweighs the benefits that mining provides to local economies and the technology industry.
This issue is especially urgent now in a region of the Pacific Northwest where Alaska and British Columbia meet. This zone, known as the Golden Triangle, is studded with mineral claims and leases. We believe that rivers in this area could be severely damaged if proposed mega-projects are allowed to proceed.
Footage of the Mt. Polley tailing spill in Canada.Catastrophic failures renew old worriesTailings dam failures range from the 1966 Aberfan disaster that buried a Welsh village to multiple spills over the past decade in Canada, China, Chile and the United States. The International Commission on Large Dams, a nongovernmental organization, warned in 2001 that the frequency and severity of tailings dam failures was increasing globally.
Two catastrophic and highly publicized failures at the Mt. Polley dam in Canada in 2014 and the Brumadinho dam in Brazil in 2019 finally catalyzed a response. The International Council on Mining and Metals, the United Nations Environment Programme and the independent organization Principles for Responsible Investment drafted a “global standard for the safe and secure management of mine tailings facilities.” The first public review of the standard was completed in December 2019, and its authors plan to finalize their recommendations by the end of March 2020.
Crews and a sniffer dog search for buried bodies 99 days after the Jan. 25, 2019 collapse of the Corrego do Feijao mining dam in Brumadinho, Brazil. Douglas Magno/AFP via Getty ImagesThe standard aspires to achieve “zero harm to people and the environment and zero tolerance for human fatality.” Reducing the likelihood of future dam failures and minimizing damage if one does break are appropriate goals, but our research suggests that the concept of “zero harm” is false and potentially dangerous.
Why? Because once in place, tailings dams and their toxic reservoirs require maintenance forever. Even if there is no catastrophic failure, these dams and their surrounding infrastructure can cause ecological harm in multiple ways. They require artificial water diversions and releases, which upset natural flow patterns in surrounding streams and modify water temperature and concentrations of metals. And polluted groundwater seepage from unlined reservoirs or failing liners is often hard to detect and treat.
These ecosystem modifications directly affect organisms on land and in the water downstream. Every decision to allow a mine to proceed with a tailings storage facility indelibly transforms rivers and their ecosystems for hundreds to thousands of years.
Mining dominates the Iskut River area of British Columbia. Each red segment represents a separate mining claim. BC Mining Law ReformInternational rivers at riskToday these decisions loom large in the Golden Triangle, home to the Taku, Stikine and Unuk Rivers – three of the longest undammed rivers in North America. Salmon from these rivers have supported indigenous communities for millennia, generate tens of millions of dollars in economic activity annually and provide a dependable source of food for organisms ranging from insects to brown bears.
We calculate that 19% of the total drainage area of these three rivers is staked with mineral mining claims or leases. This includes 59% of the Unuk River watershed, along with the entire Iskut River corridor, the largest tributary to the Stikine River.
We have identified dozens of mines in exploratory or production phases. Some industry representatives call these statistics irrelevant because only a small portion of the claims will convert to economically viable projects. But from our perspective, the fact that vast areas of these watersheds are included in initial explorations implies that few rivers in this region are safe from potential mining development.
Some of the larger past producing, exploratory and operating mines in the transboundary watersheds region, along with claims and leases. Chris Sergeant, Author provided (No reuse)Most proposed projects in the Golden Triangle will require open pit mining and tailings storage. As one indicator of their potential scale, the Red Chris Mine, which has operated since 2015 in the headwaters of the Stikine River, maintains a tailings reservoir dam that is permitted to ultimately stand 344 feet (105 meters) high and contain approximately 107 billion cubic feet (305 million cubic meters) of tailings. The heights of the failed dams at Mt. Polley and Brumadinho were 131 feet (40 meters) and 282 feet (86 meters), respectively.
Those heights pale in comparison to dams proposed for three metal mines in the Stikine and Unuk watersheds, including KSM, Galore Creek, and Schaft Creek. The tallest of four dams planned for KSM would measure 784 feet (239 meters) – one of the highest dams in North America, and the second highest in Canada.
At KSM, economically viable ore will be transported from open pits to a processing facility and tailings storage reservoir, accessed via twin tunnels built under a glacier. After what the project proponent calls the 53-year “life of mine,” Seabridge Gold proposes to treat runoff water from the piled waste rock for at least 200 years.
Each component of these proposed mines is an incredible engineering feat that will cost billions of dollars to construct and more to clean up later. From the perspective of maintaining an ecologically healthy watershed, the life of the mine is just beginning when operations close.
In contrast to more conventional water storage dams, which are licensed and built for a finite operating life, tailings dams must hold back their slurry forever. The likelihood of leaks or dam failure compounds over this multigenerational time period as facilities age and projects no longer generate revenue.
Accurately assessing riskRivers are the arteries of coastal Alaska and northwestern Canada, draining pristine snow and ice-covered mountains and pumping out cold, clean water to support fish, wildlife and people. Here and elsewhere, we believe that regulators should take a measured and cautious view of current and planned tailings facilities.
Dam failures are increasing in frequency, and often are so large that true cleanup or reclamation is not possible. Before more are built, we see a need for independent science to provide a means of honestly assessing the risk of storing mining waste.
For the past year, the province of British Columbia has been working on a plan to clean up the infamous, dormant Tulsequah Chief mine and end pollution that has been flowing from it for 60 years into the Taku watershed. That plan cannot come soon enough. It’s estimated that over 400 million litres of acid mine drainage leach from the abandoned Tulsequah Chief every year.
The Taku is one of the Pacific coast’s most beautiful and biologically rich watersheds. It deserves a plan that is comprehensive, permanent and worthy of the watershed’s extraordinary ecological and cultural values.
For 14 years, I raft guided on the Taku. It was an escape to wilderness that I shared with 20 adventurous travellers at a time, and hundreds over the years. Embracing nearly two million hectares, the Taku is one of several transboundary watersheds that bridge northwest B.C. and southeast Alaska. Significantly, however, it is the largest intact river system on the Pacific coast.
I worked as a trip leader and director of operations with The River League Wilderness Rafting Expeditions, a commercial rafting company that operated more as a non-profit by facilitating access to the remote region for First Nations, researchers, government decision-makers, NGOs and media.
During the years that The River League operated on the Taku, the world vicariously experienced this magnificent transboundary watershed through the pages of the New York Times, Washington Post and more, including National Geographic, which profiled it on TV, online and in its Traveler magazine.
To explore its currents is like coursing down a 250-km waterslide: Albeit gentle on its takeoff, it barely feeds one’s paddling confidence before it accelerates through twisting turns and hairpin bends. It sluices back and forth across a mile-wide plain of emerald marshlands tracked by beaver and moose. It slices through spruce and aspen valleys full of migratory birds. It careens through tight-walled canyon rapids, and cascades down a three-metre boulder-garden drop.
Eight or 10 days in, when visitors are fully recharged by the cold vigour of the river and perhaps have beaten their personal demons, the Taku broadens and slows once more, fuller with inputs of a half dozen tributaries and numerous estuarine glaciers. It is a humbling denouement to a brilliant baptism in God’s green creation, an undeveloped, undammed, unspoiled wilderness that starts deep in the shoulder of British Columbia.
In the early years, without access to satellite connection from the wilderness, we were alone with the watershed’s full-time residents — the wolves, wolverines, mountain goats, eagles, moose, black bears and, especially, grizzlies. Lower down, as we approached the estuary, we would also have the company of river otters, mink, porpoises and harbour seals.
The river terminates in Taku Inlet, less than 20 km south of Juneau, Alaska. Being home to all five wild Pacific salmon species, its world-class salmon runs support the local sport and commercial fishing industries that are integral to southeast Alaska’s and northwest B.C.’s economies. Proponents on both sides of the international border have long called on B.C.’s government to better protect this valuable water resource from pollution.
A longer, stronger voice is that of the Indigenous people for whom this land has deep cultural, spiritual and economic ties: Within B.C., the Taku is in the traditional territory of the Taku River Tlingit, a nation that has lived, fought, survived, and celebrated in this wilderness since the retreat of the last Great Ice Age. In Alaska, the Douglas Indian Association overlaps the Taku.
Three Tlingit youths became young men and river guides on the Taku River with us: Jerry and his brothers respectfully took the opportunity as a responsibility to represent their people and, in essence, to vet the rest of us to the spirits who had gone before.
After ten days of paddling some 150 miles of this traditional Tlingit highway, we would oar hard against wind and currents to access the turquoise outflow of Kwashona Falls. Cascading 1600 ft from its alpine birth to the lush rainforest floor below, there is definite power here. Historically, young Tlingit men came to let the ice water pound their bodies, transforming them into fearless warriors — warriors who proudly warded off hundreds of years of invasions by neighbouring nations and Russian fur barons of the late 18th century.
Impressive Tlingit sail-canoes are historically painted as faded red pictographs on granite cliffs hidden off back channels. Downstream, past eagle nests and mossy cut-banks, we would whisper pass the mostly overgrown form of a dead house, a small structure complete with windows. Inside were the cedar-boxed remains of a Tlingit ancestor who once hunted and fished within a community of thousands here. We wouldn’t stop to investigate. Jenny Jack, a lawyer for First Nations rights in unceded territories such as the Taku, expressed: “This is not a museum. It is the resting place for my people, demanding every respect and peace.”
In the mountains that flank the river, where ancient blue glaciers twist around towering mountain sentinels of the Pacific coast, Jerry pointed out the throat, the elbow, the shoulder of a slain giant of oral Creation Days whose body, laid as a memorial, formed the Taku Valley. Now, Jerry says, the giants sleep under the mountains.
But industrial frontierism is a giant of a different making. For too many years, the ongoing dormant-mine pollution of this irreplaceable watershed has not been a priority for government.
A plan for closure and cleanup of the mine needs to be comprehensive. It needs to take into account the shifting nature of this waterway by properly and permanently cleaning up and shutting down the mine so not one more litre of toxic mine waste makes its way into the Taku.
And it needs to happen soon.
For the sake of such an important, intact ecosystem, its traditional First Peoples, and its wildlife residents who have no easy voice, I’m calling on and counting on the B.C. government to ensure that the Tulsequah Chief mine is cleaned up and closed down for good.
In addition to raft guiding, Patricia Thomson has also worked for B.C. Parks, Parks Canada, and spent 14 years as executive director of the Stanley Park Ecology Society. She is a steering committee member with Rivers Without Borders Canada.
Read the opinion piece in the Vancouver Sun here.
Across the border in British Columbia's Skagit River headwaters, a proposed open-pit mine has drawn protests from Native tribes, environmentalists and politicians
by Andrew Engelson, Crosscut / February 21, 2020
In a remote corner of Washington’s North Cascades National Park in the middle of November, divers in insulated suits and snorkels brave the frigid, clear waters of Stetattle Creek looking for bull trout. Over the past decade, biologists with the National Park Service have been studying this native species in the Skagit River watershed, hoping to gain a better understanding of the environmental pressures causing these threatened fish to decline.
“I like to call bull trout the polar bear of the North Cascades,” says Ashley Rawhouser, an aquatic ecologist at North Cascades National Park. “We’re concerned about the bull trout in the upper part of the watershed. We’ve seen their numbers go up and down over the years, and they’re currently on a downward trend.”
Bull trout are extremely sensitive to habitat changes, and as such serve as a bellwether for the overall health of an ecosystem. But for Washington's North Cascades monumental changes loom just 30 miles upriver, across the border in the mountains of British Columbia, where a proposed open-pit gold and copper mine could be dug into the headwaters of the Skagit River watershed.
With conflict brewing between the international neighbors over jobs and fish, Gov. Jay Inslee and all nine members of Washington’s congressional delegation denounced the mine in May and called for the U.S. State Department to stop it. It’s a cross-border tangle that’s of grave concern to tribes south of the 49th parallel who have a deep connection to the Skagit River. If the project is approved by the British Columbia government, a 14,000-acre parcel of wild, unprotected country known as the “doughnut hole” nestled between Manning and Skagit Valley Provincial Parks could become the site for up to five years of mining.
The saga began in 2018, when Vancouver-based Imperial Metals applied for a permit to begin exploratory drilling near the headwaters of the Skagit River. In response, a coalition of environmental organizations, state and city governments, and Indigenous groups on both sides of the B.C.-Washington border joined forces to oppose logging and mining in the Skagit headwaters because of risks to salmon and trout.
On one front, the opponents have succeeded. In December 2018, the B.C. government announced it would ban logging in the Skagit headwaters, which began in 2015 in part to establish a series of mountain roads that would help crews access mining sites.
But a denial of the mining permit is far from certain. A declining timber industry and growing global demand for metals is putting pressure on B.C.’s provincial government to generate more resource-extraction jobs. And that has biologists and members of Washington tribes, such as the Upper Skagit and Swinomish, worried about the potential for pollution and heavy-metal contamination that could come with the mine.
Tribal fears go beyond losing bull trout: The Skagit River is the largest source of fresh water feeding into the Salish Sea, and the only river on Puget Sound that’s home to all five species of native salmon: pink, chum, sockeye, silver and chinook. Those runs have been in a steady decline, says Scott Schuyler, chairman of the Upper Skagit Tribe.
“We’ve seen one fall chinook run in 20 years,” Schuyler says, “and only one spring chinook run in the past 50. I have two children and one granddaughter and she’s never seen a wild chum salmon. We aren’t able to pass on our culture, because there’s no salmon.”
The Skagit River Watershed stretches from southwest British Columbia to the Salish Sea. (Skagit Environmental Endowment Commission)
The Skagit River’s 150-mile-long watershed begins at Allison Pass high in B.C.’s Cascades, and for decades Washington and British Columbia have quarreled over it. A series of dams were built on Washington’s portion of the river in the 1920s and ’30s — including Ross Dam, which, with the other dams on the river, supplies about 20% of Seattle City Light’s power, and which created a 24-mile namesake lake that extends into British Columbia.
In 1984, City Light signed a treaty agreeing not to build a higher dam in return for assurances from B.C. that it would keep the river free from pollution. The cross-border Skagit Environmental Endowment Commission was created that same year to resolve future disputes.
In mid-2018, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan wrote a scathing letter to British Columbia Premier John Horgan and the commission on behalf of City Light, taking issue with plans to log and mine the headwaters. The projects, she said, would threaten the city’s $77 million conservation efforts to recover threatened chinook salmon. The Skagit accounts for about 80% of chinook in Puget Sound — the preferred food of the region’s embattled orcas.
“The Skagit is the last best hope for chinook salmon in Puget Sound,” says Rawhouser, the North Cascades National Park aquatic ecologist.
A more recent letter from City Light in May 2019 took issue with the exploratory mining project, citing inadequate environmental protections in the plan. “The collecting pond they have for the wastewater is way too small, and our estimate is it’ll fill up in about 10 minutes,” says Lynn Best, chief environmental officer of City Light.
And Imperial Metals’ record of environmental safety has opponents worried: In 2014, an earthen dam holding back a tailing pond at Imperial Metals’ Mount Polley mine in south central British Columbia collapsed, sending 24 million cubic meters of wastewater laden with arsenic, lead, selenium and copper into Quesnel Lake. It was one of Canada’s worst environmental disasters, and may have had a disastrous impact on one of B.C.’s most robust sockeye salmon runs. Who will pay for restoration and cleanup remains in dispute.
Officials with the British Columbia Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources denied a request for an interview but said in an email statement that statutory decision makers — a group of nonpolitical technical staff in the ministry — are still reviewing the mining proposal.
“Statutory decision makers have a responsibility to complete a thorough and comprehensive review, and to consider all relevant information and perspectives,” the statement said, “including feedback received from First Nations, environmental organizations and the public.”
The Skagit is just one of many rivers in Washington threatened by B.C.’s enthusiasm for mining, says Mitch Friedman, executive director of Conservation Northwest. By his organization’s count, there are 33 active or proposed mines within 60 miles of B.C’s southern border. He cites the Copper Mountain Mine situated above the Similkameen River, which flows into central Washington’s Okanogan River. “The tailings pond there is three times the size of the one that blew out at Mount Polley,” says Friedman. “And it’s an earthen dam. It’s terrifying, this thing just sitting there. It’s a time bomb.”
Conservation Northwest has called for reforms to British Columbia’s mining regulations — especially provisions that require mining companies to prove they can cover the costs of a catastrophic spill. The current system doesn’t require restoration of damaged watersheds and allows companies to avoid cleanup costs by declaring bankruptcy.
According to Holly Tally, a spokesperson for the B.C. Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources, a new financial assurance policy is under development, but the ministry wouldn’t make details of the new rules public until the process is finished.
Indigenous groups join in oppositionBrian Cladoosby is chairman of the Swinomish Tribe, whose reservation is in the flat, wide floodplains of the Skagit River delta. The Swinomish have been fishing for salmon in the Skagit and Puget Sound for thousands of years.
“We’re known as the salmon people,” Cladoosby says. “We put away up to 40,000 pounds of salmon that we purchase or catch. And we freeze that salmon and we eat it throughout the year, whether it's funerals, weddings, or birthdays. It’s our greatest natural resource.”
Since he began fishing in the 1970s, Cladoosby has seen runs decline precipitously. “In 1975, we would start the third week of June,” he says. “And we’d basically fish continually right through until the end of December with only a few weeks off in between the runs. We’d have the king salmon, then we’d have the pink salmon, then we’d have the silver salmon, then we’d have the chum salmon, then the steelhead.”
Today, things are different. “Now we'll start in June to fish on the hatchery kings,” Cladoosby says, “and we'll probably fish about two or three weeks for that. Then we’ll fish in July for two or three weeks with sockeye. And if the silver runs — and they haven't been that good in the last few years — we’ll start in September and fish through September and then we’re done for the year.”
Both the Swinomish and the Upper Skagit are involved in a cross-border annual summit of 66 Indigenous groups called the Coast Salish Gathering, which also includes First Nations from coastal British Columbia and other tribes in Western Washington.
“Headwaters are special,” says Schuyler, chairman of the Upper Skagit Tribe. “That’s where it all begins. You have a duty to think about what you do, and the effects it has on what’s downstream.”
Schuyler notes that even though the Washington tribes don’t have standing with the B.C. government, they’ve consulted with B.C. First Nations in order to make sure their concerns are heard. “We were pleased to see that logging was banned in the headwaters, and we hope that translates into the same sort of protections from mining,” Cladoosby says. “We need fresh, clean cold water for the salmon.”
Imperial Metals' desired mine site is in the vicinity of this recent clearcut near Silverdaisy Mountain, in the "doughnut hole" at the headwaters of the Skagit River in British Columbia. (Wilderness Committee)
A sensitive fish
Bull trout are a finicky fish: They require extremely cold, pristine water and complex river habitat with plenty of riffles, pools and shade provided by fallen logs. Though they don’t return to the sea like salmon, they have migratory patterns within the river.
According to Rawhouser, there are generally two types of bull trout on the Skagit. The first are those that spend most of their lives in the human-created lake behind Ross Dam. These fish don’t typically get more than 8 inches long. A second, more robust variety known as adfluvial bull trout migrates up into the streams feeding into the Skagit River and Ross Lake and can travel far into British Columbia to spawn. This migrating variety of bull trout grows much larger than their sedentary cousins, reaching lengths of up to 2½ feet.
“The bigger the fish, the more successful they are in spawning,” Rawhouser notes. “They can dig their redds deeper, so they withstand flooding events more. The females have more eggs, so they produce more offspring.”
Even small amounts of sediment clouding these glacier-fed creeks can inhibit bull trout in their fall spawning. A mine, a drilling site, road construction or any activity that generates dust and debris is often enough, says Rawhouser. “This fine sediment can get into the stream channels and it can bury the fish redds,” he says. “It basically seals the eggs in a casket, where they don't get enough oxygen and die.”
The teams of divers he’s been working with have collected data on bull trout in streams located in North Cascades National Park, but information on the fish in British Columbia is lacking. Wildfires in B.C. in 2018 and a large landslide that clouded waters in 2019 prevented studies from occurring in the past two years.
The Skagit headwaters already has a test case for a mine’s effect on fish. Silverdaisy Mountain has a variety of small-scale drilling and mining sites that date from as far back as the 1930s. In 2007 and 2008, the Skagit Environmental Endowment Commission hired environmental contractor Limnotek to determine if these sites were leaking anything toxic into the Skagit basin.
The study found that even these relatively small mining sites were leaching elevated levels of cadmium, lead and zinc into creeks that feed into the Skagit. Cadmium is a particularly potent risk to bull trout, says Rawhouser.
“It affects their osmoregulation, their ability to control the salts in their body,” he says. “So one of the unique things about being a freshwater fish is that you are basically like a big bag of permeable salt, and the salt in your body is always trying to leach out into the fresh water, which has low concentrations of salt.”
If the fish can’t regulate those salts, they get weak and die, Rawhouser says.
Though he and his team have yet to see direct evidence of this sort of poisoning in bull trout, they’ll be working with the U.S. Geological Survey this summer to study river sediments near the U.S.-Canadian border to get more accurate measurements of metals such as cadmium.
If even these small disturbances are already having an impact, the risks from a huge open-pit mine are exponentially higher, notes Swinomish Chairman Cladoosby: “It’s well-documented that this type of mining around the world has left nothing but a scar on the environment,” he says. “The corporations come in, make all their profits, pay all their shareholders, and then they leave and they leave a degraded environment for us to deal with.”
“This mine is just one project,” says Schuyler of the Upper Skagit Tribe. “But it all feels like a death by a thousand cuts. Climate change, habitat degradation, warming water, the loss of chinook and orcas. We’re seeing environmental degradation becoming the norm."
About the Authors & Contributors
Andrew Engelson is a Seattle-based journalist and the founding editor of Cascadia Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @andyengelson
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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