June 6, 2018
At transboundary dialogue, officials talk process when Alaskans want action
JUNEAU— Abandoned, operating and planned mines on transboundary rivers in British Columbia pose active threats to — or are actively polluting — waters shared by B.C. and Alaska. Meanwhile, State of Alaska and Province of B.C. officials talk “process” — a word that has so far meant anything but action. A June 1 “Transboundary Partners Dialogue” co-hosted by the State of Alaska, the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, and Sealaska, offered more of the same.
“A process without a binding commitment to action is not much more than a wish,” said Salmon Beyond Borders campaign manager Jill Weitz.
Needed actions include the prompt cleanup and closure of the Tulsequah Chief mine in the Taku River watershed, binding financial assurances to cover the costs of all mining impacts prior to mine operations, and the development of a robust, transparent environmental review process for mining projects in transboundary watersheds.
“The lack of progress over many years, despite people’s stated good intentions, plainly shows we need a better framework for this issue,” said Heather Hardcastle, Salmon Beyond Borders campaign director. “These are international watersheds protected by international treaties and shared by many different jurisdictions — U.S., Canadian and indigenous. We need to do things differently in B.C.-Alaska watersheds.”
Tulsequah Chief mine: Despite repeated promises from former Minister of Energy and Mines Bill Bennett, who visited Juneau in 2015, the Tulsequah Chief Mine, abandoned in 1957, is still releasing acid mine drainage into the Taku River. “It’s three years later. We hear from everybody that there’s concern, and nothing’s happening, and that’s a frustrating thing,” said Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan, at the dialogue. Karina Sangha, Senior First Nations Advisor at the B.C. Ministry of Energy, Mines, and Petroleum Resources, agreed that the province does have the ability to hold historical owner Teck Resources liable. There was no promise, however, that any owner, current or historical, would be.
Financial assurances: One of the things Alaskans have always wanted from B.C. mines are binding financial assurances not only for reclamation, but for catastrophes like Mount Polley. Teck Resources has had to put up more money in financial assurances for its one Alaska mine, Red Dog, than for all 13 of its mines in British Columbia, according to “Canadian Mines on Transboundary Rivers: The Need for Financial Assurances,” a March 2017 report to the Alaska State Legislature from B.C. economist Robyn Allan. In a separate report, she found B.C. taxpayers are on the hook for $1.5 billion in unfunded mine disaster and reclamation cleanup. B.C. and Alaska officials will be meeting in August to talk more about financial assurances.
B.C.’s environmental assessment process: B.C. officials have repeatedly said their environmental assessment process was “under review.” At the meeting, Alaskans replied that transboundary watersheds require more transparency, responsiveness to comments, and Alaskan input — especially because almost all of planned mines in transboundary watersheds require toxic tailings storage and water treatment in perpetuity. Those mines should undergo the highest level of review.
Selenium pollution: Selenium causes death, deformities and infertility in fish, and no one knows how to treat it at the level necessary for large mines. The Elk-Kootenai river system shared by B.C. and Montana is already seeing fish deformities from Teck Resources’ coal mines in B.C., which is releasing selenium at more than 50 times the level that is safe for aquatic life. “Ultimately, this is our fear. This is our concern,” Ortiz told B.C. officials. “I’m talking about long after you and I are gone. Nobody wants to see that happen.”
Inter-state cooperation: Ortiz, along with nine other Alaska state legislators, recently sent a letter to Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott and Gov. Bill Walker requesting that Alaska work with Montana, Idaho, and Washington governments. Those states are also dealing with downstream pollution from B.C. mines. At the dialogue, Mallott told Ortiz that “we’ll work with anyone.”
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Salmon Beyond Borders
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