Larger negotiating table
Alaska, BC form trans-boundary group to address concerns, opportunities
Last updated 1/27/2018 at 5:08pm
Instead of putting up taller fences along the roughly 800-mile (1,300 kilometers) border between Alaska and British Columbia, the neighbors are building a larger negotiating table to work out concerns over the potential development of mines in Northwest B.C. watersheds that drain through Southeast Alaska.
The framework for this increased cooperation was laid out in a memorandum of understanding signed by the neighbors Nov. 25.
“British Columbia and Alaska share a lot of common interests that transcend borders, and a long history of working together. This MOU provides for more collaboration and cooperation to ensure the protection, conservation and enhancement for our share environment – and a better future for people on both sides of the border,” B. C. Premier Christy Clark said upon signing the document.
Alaskans have voiced growing concerns over the potential development of a number of large copper deposits in Northwest B.C. located upstream of Southeast Alaska. These apprehensions became more acute following the 2014 tailings dam breach at Imperial Metals Corp.’s Mount Polley Mine in central B. C.
“Because water runs downhill, it is Alaska that is likely to be most affected by any action that takes place on the Canadian side of the border,” Alaska Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott said during a Nov. 4 luncheon speech at the Alaska Miners Association convention in Anchorage
In addition to addressing the downstream risks that have stoked apprehension in Alaska, the pact lays the groundwork for closer cooperation on a broad number of issues and opportunities that will arise from increased activity on both sides of the border.
“As our next door neighbor, Canada plays a significant role in many Alaska industries, including trade, transportation, and tourism,” Alaska Gov. Bill Walker explained.
Under the agreement, Alaska and B.C. pledge a strong commitment to:
• Establishing a bilateral working group on the protection of transboundary waters;
• Sharing best practices on work force development and training;
• Advancing marine transportation reliability and safety;
• Reinforcing emergency management mutual aid response through the existing Pacific Northwest Emergency Management Arrangement;
• Fostering continued growth of existing and increased transportation links;
• Continuing joint visitor industry promotion; and
• Exploring other areas for cooperative action, including natural resource development, fisheries, ocean acidification, border management, trade and investment, and climate change adaptation.
“As we work to improve our state’s economy, it is important that we actively reach out and foster good relationships with our trading partners and neighbors with whom we share so much in common,” added Walker.
While the MOU addresses a broad range of environmental concerns and economic opportunities shared by these salmon-rich jurisdictions located along a picturesque stretch of the Pacific Rim, the impetus for reaching this pact is the numerous and oftentimes large mineral projects in various stages of development in Northwest British Columbia.
Imperial Metals’ Red Chris copper-gold mine, which is located upstream of Alaska, reached commercial production this summer. Another six Northwest B.C. projects located in the transboundary region – Brucejack (Pretium Resources), Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell (Seabridge Gold), Schaft Creek (Copper Fox Metals-Teck Resources), Galore Creek (Novagold-Teck), Kisault (Avanti Mining) and Tulsequah Chief (Chieftain Metals) – are near or in permitting. At least three more – Spectrum (Skeena Resources), Dolly Varden (Dolly Varden Silver) and Eaglehead (Carmax Mining) show potential to join the projects queued up for permitting.
With so much potential mine development upstream and the memory of the Mount Polley spill still fresh, Walker appointed Mallott to chair a trans-boundary working group to engage British Columbia at the state-provincial level. Commissioners of Alaska departments of Environmental Conservation, Fish and Game, and Natural Resources were also appointed to the group.
The lieutenant governor told the AMA luncheon crowd that the trans-boundary group has reached out to a broad spectrum of stakeholders representing all sides of the issue and both sides of the border.
“What we needed to do, more than anything else, is reach out to those that were concerned, affected, likely to be affected, or cared about the issue – either in a positive or negative way,” he explained.
This engagement included meeting with Alaska tribes, fishermen, conservation groups, miners and regulators. Mallott also traveled to B. C. to meet with provincial, mining and First Nations groups on the upstream side of the border. Continuing this increased diplomacy and dialogue, British Columbia Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett visited Southeast Alaska to meet with concerned downstream stakeholders in August.
“We have had some really excellent discussions with the State of Alaska on what we can do to enhance their already existing role in our environmental assessment process,” Bennett said during his visit.
The MOU is the first step of these plans for increased cross-border engagement. The next step will be bringing Alaska and B. C. stakeholders to the table of a larger trans-boundary working group that will be headed by Lt. Gov. Mallott, Minister Bennett and B. C. Minister of Environment Mary Polak.
“Establishing this bilateral working group encourages tribes, First Nations, and other stakeholders to join the important conversation around our trans-boundary waters,” said Walker.
This working group will work under a “statement of cooperation” that will be appended to the MOU.
“We have listened to Alaskans’ concerns about protecting waters in our trans-boundary rivers, and have already begun conversations in Alaska on a statement of cooperation specific to this working group’s future role,” said Mallott. “Our next steps include sharing our ideas in a draft SOC with British Columbia officials so they can continue the conversation in Canada with their stakeholders.”
The groups of Alaska stakeholders that are most opposed to the development of mines in the trans-boundary watersheds of northwestern B. C. were disappointed that the MOU was signed before they had a chance to comment on a draft of the statement of cooperation.
“It’s hard not to feel blindsided by this news,” Salmon Beyond Borders Director Heather Hardcastle said. “Tribes, municipal leaders, fishing groups and Alaskans across the political spectrum are right now working to respond and provide feedback to the State of Alaska on this very topic, and we were given no warning by the administration that an MOU would be signed in advance.”
These groups believe that involvement of the International Joint Commission, an organization formed in 1909 to deal with U.S-Canada trans-boundary water issues, is the best way to ensure that Alaskans’ interests are protected.
In response to the signing of the MOU, Chris Zimmer of Rivers Without Borders said, “Unfortunately this action by the state makes it clearer than ever that Alaskans’ concerns about impacts from an upstream mining district in B. C. must be addressed by our federal governments. The Boundary Waters Treaty and International Joint Commission possess the necessary authorities to protect the waters, fisheries and communities of Southeast Alaska.”
Mallott said the groups most adamant about getting the IJC involved have been less clear about what role this international body would play.
“Part of that has to do, in my judgment, that some want there to be no mining in British Columbia,” he said.
Mallott and Minister Bennett, however, have indicated that the IJC may have a role in certain aspects of the Alaska-B.C. trans-boundary solution, such as governing financial assurances to cover a catastrophic event.
Ultimately, Alaska leaders are hoping to maximize the rewards while minimizing the risks to the state from the development of the rich mineral resource in neighboring B.C.
“We have no desire to slow down or shut down mining in British Columbia – they are a sovereign government, just as we are; but, at the same time, we will be as vigorous as we possibly need to be to protect Alaska’s water quality and the environmental integrity of those corridors,” Mallott added.