Mallott visits B.C., Mount Polley mine
Alaska's lieutenant governor seeks to understand other side of trans-boundary mining issues, strengthen relations with neighbor
Last updated 5/10/2015 at Noon
Alaska Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott spent this week getting a firsthand look at trans-boundary water issues from the British Columbia side of the border, where a number of mines are being proposed on water systems that feed rivers that run through Southeast Alaska.
"These rivers are key to Southeast Alaska's way of life, including Native cultures, community economies, recreation and subsistence, and, of course, its profitable seafood and tourism industries that employ thousands of people," said Mallott.
His tour of neighboring British Columbia included stops at Victoria, where he met with provincial government leaders; Vancouver, where he met with mining sector and First Nations groups during B.C. Mining Week celebrations; and central B.C., where he toured the site of the tailings storage dam failure at the Mount Polley Mine.
After meetings with B.C. Minister of Mines Bill Bennett and B.C. Minister of Environment Mary Polak, Mallott says he believes the regulators are sincere about protecting the waters shared by B.C. and Alaska.
Many Southeast Alaskans are alarmed about the potential development of several mines in northwestern B.C., one of the world's richest mineral districts, and what this mining boom could mean for the quality of waters that drain this region and run through the Alaska Panhandle.
The August failure of a tailings storage facility at Imperial Metals Corp.'s Mount Polley Mine, however, raised the level of these worries and prompted the Alaska government to take closer notice of what is happening in neighboring British Columbia.
As a result of this mounting concern, Alaska Gov. Bill Walker formed a trans-boundary working group to be chaired by Lt. Gov. Mallott. The group also includes commissioners of Alaska departments of Environmental Conservation, Fish and Game, and Natural Resources.
Of Tlingit heritage and born in Yakutat, Mallott has a special connection to Southeast Alaska and the people that live there.
"I grew up in an environment that was so natural, and so much a part of me, that I never really considered it as separate from my being. And I know many Alaskans, particularly First Peoples, feel the same way," Mallott said during a February speech at the Alaska Forum on the Environment.
Despite his strong connection to the people and environs of Southeast Alaska, Mallott is taking a consolatory tone as chairman of the trans-boundary water group.
"As neighbors, we have many things in common, and I want to strengthen the relationships we Alaskans have with British Columbia," he said before his trip. "I look forward to this trip and seeing first-hand the Canadian side of the trans-boundary issues."
Mallott began his tour of B.C. in the provincial capital of Victoria, where he met with government leaders, including a sit-down with Minister of Mines Bennett, who has come under increased pressure from both sides of the border since the Mount Polley incident.
"It is my intention to work really closely with Alaska to make sure we can manage our trans-boundary issues - British Columbia and Alaska," Bennett said during a November presentation at the Alaska Miners Association 2014 Convention.
Though both sides seem to want to reach out, the risk-reward scenarios on each side of the border creates a wide chasm to bridge.
British Columbia, for its part, believes that the development of a number of world-class metals deposits in its northwestern sector is vital to the future of mining in the province.
"Proposed mine developments in Northwest B.C. have the potential to create thousands of direct and indirect jobs in the region, as well as result in billions of dollars in capital investment," according to a government factsheet on mine development in the region.
Red Chris (Imperial Metals), Brucejack (Pretium Resources), Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell (Seabridge Gold), Tulsequah Chief (Chieftain Metals), Schaft Creek (Copper Fox Metals-Teck Resources), Galore Creek (Novagold-Teck) and Kisault (Avanti Mining) are among the most advanced of the northwestern B.C. projects located in this mineral rich area just east of Alaska.
Alaska sees little financial upside of developing these mines but shares in the environmental risks posed to the salmon-bearing rivers flowing through Southeast - namely the Taku, Stikine and Unuk rivers.
"Downstream salmon fisheries in Alaska could be ruined by a dam failure at B.C. mines proposed in the Taku, Stikine and Unuk watersheds," according to Chris Zimmer, Alaska campaign director, Rivers Without Borders, a trans-boundary watershed conservation group.
Of the northwestern B.C. mines on the docket, the Red Chris Mine began conditional production earlier this year; the Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell (KSM) and Brucejack projects have gained provincial permit approvals and are awaiting final approvals from the federal government.
Brucejack, a high-grade gold project about 65 kilometers (40 miles) north of Stewart in northwestern British Columbia, does not intend store its tailings behind a dam. Instead, the company will use some of its waste to backfill the underground mine, the rest will be stored in a natural lake devoid of fish. The KSM project, however, is to store its tailings in an engineered facility.
In late April, Salmon Beyond Borders, a Southeast Alaska conservation group, sent a letter to the B.C. Mines Minister Bennett and B.C. Environment Minister Mary Polak calling for a shift from permitting facilities that store mine tailings under water to dry-stack storage, a method in which the water is squeezed out and the tailings are compacted and stacked.
While less prone to spills, most in the industry consider the costs of the extra processing required prohibitive for many mine projects.
In an interview with the Vancouver Sun, Bennett said, "I don't think that's in the cards for B.C. - or any other province in Canada - to adopt a policy where all you can use to manage tailings is dry-stack tailings."
Visiting Mt. Polley
Salmon Beyond Borders also visited British Columbia during the province's mining week. While the trips are separate, the environmental group and Mallott's itineraries include a visit to Mount Polley.
Though not located upstream of Alaska, the collapse of the tailings dam at Mount Polley legitimized fears that similar B.C. mines located in the Taku, Stikine and Unuk watersheds pose risks rivers running through Southeast.
"The Mount Polley disaster was a clear sign that B.C. cannot assure us trans-boundary waters and fish won't be polluted by the province's aggressive mining agenda," said Sitka Mayor Mim McConnell.
Bennett argues that the Mount Polley event does not represent British Columbia's 160-year mining history.
"Your suggestion, based on the Mount Polley failure, that in B.C. we are somehow less responsible in developing our mining industry than you are in Alaska, or that we're charging forward without due care for environmental protection is based on a misrepresentation of the facts," he wrote in response to an editorial in the Juneau Empire.
Mallott says his visit to Mount Polley is about finding out what lessons have been learned from the breach that spilled an estimated 31 million cubic yards of tailings and water into the rivers and lakes downstream of the mine.
Bennett believes the visit to the area will provide Alaska's lieutenant governor with further insight into B.C.'s rules and permitting process.
Imperial Metals is currently working with the province and local First Nations communities to re-open the Mount Polley Mine. In the restart plan, tailings would be deposited into a previously mined pit. The company hopes to get regulatory permission to restart operations in June.
During its visit to B.C., Salmon Beyond Borders is hoping to drum up added support for involvement by the International Joint Commission, an organization formed in 1909 to deal with U.S-Canada trans-boundary water issues.
Bennett, however, does not believe that Alaska-B.C. trans-boundary issues need to be overseen by federal or international authorities.
"The suggestion that it is time for the International Joint Commission to get involved is very much premature, and ignores the history of trans-boundary engagement and co-operation between our jurisdictions on environmental issues associated with mining," the mines minister penned in an editorial in the Juneau Empire.
This state-provincial co-operation took a step forward with Lt. Gov. Mallott's visit to B.C.