Protecting state waters
Alaska delegates call for Ottawa-D.C. to weigh in on BC-AK mining concerns
Last updated 1/26/2018 at 2:41pm
Alaska’s congressional delegation is once again eliciting greater Obama Administration involvement in the potential development of numerous mines being considered on northwestern British Columbia waterways that drain through Southeast Alaska.
“Like most Alaskans, we strongly support responsible mining, including mines in Southeast Alaska, but Alaskans need to have every confidence that mining activity in Canada is carried out just as safely as in our state,” the trio of Alaska lawmaker penned in a May 12 letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
Following a report earlier this month by British Columbia’s auditor general, however, Alaska senators Lisa Murkowski, Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young, all Republicans, do not feel that such a confidence in neighboring B.C.’s mining oversight is warranted.
Over the course of her two-year investigation, B.C. Auditor General Carol Bellringer found that the province’s “expectations for a robust compliance and enforcement program within the (Ministry of Energy and Mines) and (Ministry of Environment) were not met.”
She said both regulatory agencies had gaps in the resources and tools needed to ensure mine operators complied with environmental regulations – limitations that increase the environmental risks from mines under their stewardship.
“During the course of this audit, these risks became a reality and disaster occurred when the tailings dam at Mount Polley failed – releasing approximately 25 million cubic meters of wastewater and tailings into adjacent water systems and lakes,” Bellringer wrote.
The Alaska delegation worries that a similar occurrence in one of the three watersheds upstream of the Southeast Alaska Panhandle – Stikine, Taku and Unuk – would hurt fisheries, tourism and the Native peoples of the region.
The 2014 tailings dam breach at Imperial Metals Corp.’s Mount Polley Mine accentuated the growing concerns many Alaskans have about the potential development of a number of large copper deposits in Northwest B.C. located upstream of Southeast Alaska.
“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.
Imperial Metals’ Red Chris copper-gold mine, which is located upstream of Alaska, reached commercial production in 2015. 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.
This list does not include the growing number of exciting, earlier staged mineral projects being explored in the prolific Golden Triangle region of Northwest B.C.
In their letter to Secretary Kerry, the Alaska delegation suggests that the U.S. State Department should encourage officials in Ottawa and Victoria to take into consideration the potential cumulative impacts on trans-boundary waters while considering permits for mines upstream of Alaska.
“We must, at the very least, ask for Canada’s commitment to help protect the pristine waters of Southeast Alaska – to match our commitment to baseline water quality monitoring, and to consider other ways to ensure the full protection of our world-class fisheries,” they penned in the letter to Kerry.
The trio of Alaska lawmaker suggested to the secretary of state that the International Joint Commission, an organization formed in 1909 to deal with U.S-Canada trans-boundary water issues, is one option to ensure that Alaskans’ interests are protected.
The idea of involving the International Joint Commission has been a back-burner idea considered during discussions between Alaska and British Columbia. The neighboring jurisdictions would prefer, however, to work out trans-boundary mining concerns at a state-provincial-level.
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 shared environment – and a better future for people on both sides of the border,” B. C. Premier Christy Clark said upon signing the document,” said B. C. Premier Christy Clark.
“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 Alaska Governor Bill Walker.
For its part, the B.C. government is implementing recommendations by the B.C. Auditor General office and an independent panel of experts that investigated the cause of the Mount Polley dam failure.
B.C. Minister of Energy and Mines Bill Bennett said “the Mount Polley disaster, despite being unprecedented in modern B.C. history and despite the hidden, sub-surface cause of the accident, is evidence that improvements in regulation are necessary to increase protection against the unforeseen. We are committed to improving the regulatory oversight and reducing the margin of risk so that such a disaster can never happen again.”
While neither Alaska nor British Columbia is prepared to involve an international overseer at this stage of diplomacy, Alaska Lt. Gov. Mallott and B.C. Mines Minister Bennett said the MOU does not preclude the future involvement of the IJC.
They have indicated that certain aspects of the Alaska-B.C. trans-boundary solution, such as governing financial assurances to cover a catastrophic event, could be one area where the IJC could be helpful.
The Union of BC Indian Chiefs, a First Nation group founded in 1969, calling for a financial assurances framework in B.C. that is robust enough to incentivize safer operations and to cover the full costs of environmental clean-up work in the event of a major mine disaster.
The group pointed to Alaska and Quebec as jurisdictions with the level of reclamation bonding they are seeking.
“By failing to follow suit, B.C. has reduced this incentive and placed taxpayers at huge financial risk,” Union of BC Indian Chiefs President Stewart Phillip explained.
For the trans-boundary watersheds of Northwest B.C., these risks extend to U.S. taxpayers.
In their letter to Secretary Kerry, the Alaska delegation emphasized the more than US$1 billion of yearly fishing, tourism and subsistence lifestyles supported by the world-renowned salmon runs of Southeast Alaska.
The lawmakers have asked the secretary of state to help secure funding for baseline water quality testing on the Alaska side of the border so that if the U.S. ever needs to seek damages for environmental impacts, a situation that IJC is suited to adjudicate.
Stressing the importance of continued clean water flowing across the B.C.-Alaska border, the Alaska delegates asked Kerry and his colleagues in Washington D.C. to voice their concerns with their counterparts in Ottawa and British Columbia.
“Doing so will help us gain a better understanding of the new development taking place across the border, ensure that appropriate safeguards are in place for that development, and keep Alaskan waters pristine and productive,” they wrote.