By Scott Schuyler and Rob Edward
Special to The Times
Six years ago this month, British Columbia suffered an environmental catastrophe when a dam at the Mount Polley Mine collapsed, spilling more than a billion gallons of toxic waste into Quesnel Lake and the Fraser Watershed. The devastation impacted community drinking water, salmon spawning grounds and faith in B.C.’s mining oversight. With numerous other mines in watersheds upstream of Washington rivers, we are at risk of similar tragedies unless the provincial government in Victoria ends the regulatory blank check it grants the mining industry.
The company responsible for the Mount Polley disaster, Imperial Metals, owns mineral rights in a part of the Skagit River Headwaters called the “donut hole,” unprotected land surrounded by Manning Provincial Park and other protected areas just north of the U.S.-Canada border and North Cascades National Park. Calls for termination of Imperial’s mining ambitions here have come from native leaders, elected officials, conservationists and prominent Canadian voices. Yet as the price of gold soars, the risk of another mining disaster increases.
The Skagit River, which is named after the Upper Skagit people, has been at the very center of the lives and culture of the Upper Skagit Tribe since time immemorial. It’s also the most productive salmon river flowing into Puget Sound. A mining accident in the Skagit Headwaters would harm tribal and nontribal communities, salmon and the struggling southern resident killer whales. We hope others will see the value in moving quickly to protect this sacred river and our way of life.
But the Skagit is not the only international river at risk. Copper Mountain Mine, near Princeton, B.C., has a massive tailings dam that tenuously holds toxic sludge from flowing down the Similkameen River into Washington and the Okanogan and Columbia rivers, important producers of sockeye and Chinook. The Similkameen’s water is sacred to the Lower Similkameen Indian Band, who have been unable to eat fish from the river for generations due to the legacy of mining. The mismanagement of our watersheds has led to the desecration of social, cultural, environmental and economic values that were given by the Creator from our beginning. Our Syilx Water Declaration must shape the starting point for watershed planning in the future, including mitigating threats from mining.
These are just two examples. There are dozens of existing and proposed mines just north of the border, many threatening Idaho, Montana and especially southeast Alaska, where Imperial’s Red Chris Mine puts the cherished salmon runs of the Stikine River at risk. Toxic waste from B.C. mining lines the bottom of Lake Roosevelt in northeast Washington. Montana’s Elk River is heavily polluted by upstream coal mining. Yet provincial mining regulations are much more lax than those of Washington. And as B.C.’s auditor general reported, even those lax standards are not being met.
Americans usually think of Canada as a good neighbor, but there is nothing neighborly about this. British Columbia is putting communities at risk, both its own and those downstream in the U.S. The health of our rivers, salmon and communities is jeopardized by subsidies to transnational mining corporations. This must end, and Washington’s leaders must speak up.
It is time for Victoria to modernize provincial mining regulations, bringing them to at least level with Washington’s. Most important is a requirement for full financial assurances, so that mining interests have posted enough funds to remediate any damage they cause.
It has been six years since the Mount Polley disaster, and nothing has changed. Our communities cannot wait any longer to be relieved of danger from toxic mining spills. We call on Washington’s leaders, especially Gov. Jay Inslee, to demand these actions of Premier John Horgan and his government.
Scott Schuyler: of Sedro-Woolley is a lifelong fisherman, tribal member and the natural resources director of the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe.
Rob Edward: of Keremeos, B.C. is a traditional knowledge keeper specialist and former chief of the Lower Similkameen Indian Band.
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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