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Canada Needs to Clean Up Its Act

Chris Zimmer : Sep 17.2009

Alaska Dispatch    News and voices from the Last Frontier ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Chris Zimmer

September 16, 2009

It’s been said that strong fences make good neighbors. But those neighbors need to lean across that fence and talk to ensure a safe, clean, and peaceful neighborhood. That’s what Sarah Palin tried to do on one of her last days in office when she wrote to the government of British Columbia urging a timely halt to highly toxic acid mine drainage (AMD) flowing from the abandoned Tulsequah Chief mine into the Taku River watershed. For over 50 years, the mine has been polluting this transboundary watershed with AMD that Canadian regulatory agencies found to be “acutely lethal” to aquatic organisms.


Palin has been a strong mining industry supporter and often did not treat salmon conservation efforts as a priority. Thus, her July 1 letter to British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell is a clear demonstration of the importance of the Taku watershed to Alaska. The Taku is Southeast Alaska’s most productive salmon river and often one of the top five in the state, hosting up to two million salmon annually. These fish support 400 fishing jobs and provide over $7 million annually to the local economy, according to a 2004 report by the Juneau-based McDowell Group. Taku salmon also provide significant opportunities for sport, subsistence, and personal use fishing in the Juneau area.

The State of Alaska has generally been a careful manager of the lower Taku River, which provides critical rearing habitat for juvenile salmon. Yet we are dependent on the provincial and federal Canadian governments to ensure the health and productivity of the upper Taku watershed, where the large majority of Taku salmon spawn.

The track record is not encouraging. The BC provincial government has done nothing to address the chronic AMD pollution spewing from the Tulsequah Chief mine since the 1950’s when Cominco simply walked away from the mine without any remediation, while federal authorities at Environment Canada have issued a series of cleanup orders but have done little to enforce them. For the past decade, a new owner, Redfern Resources, has been trying to re-open the mine, located on the Tulsequah River, the main tributary to the Taku, about 12 miles upstream from the Alaska/British Columbia border and about 40 miles northeast of Juneau. However, due to financial and technical incompetence, Redfern Resources is now bankrupt and has essentially
abandoned the Tulsequah Chief without any apparent interest in cleaning it up.

Redfern recently removed most of the equipment and a water treatment plant from the mine site in order to sell them to pay creditors. This was despite a specific request from Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Irwin not to do this, which was sent along with Palin’s July 1 letter. There has not yet been any response to Palin’s letter.

The bottom line is that wild salmon are not a major priority for the government of British Columbia. For example, during the initial review of the Tulsequah Chief mine in 2000 and 2001, the province simply assumed there were no salmon in the Tulsequah River. It was up to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to conduct studies, which found high value fish habitat and significant numbers of juvenile sockeye, coho, and chum salmon. More recently, British Columbia continues to promote its near-shore farmed salmon industry, despite clear evidence of threats to wild salmon from sea lice and escapees.

Taku wild salmon and the Alaskan jobs they support are too important for us to simply entrust their future to British Columbia. Alaska has some of the best wild salmon management on the planet and we should demand no less from our neighbor. But this will take more than a couple of letters. Governor Parnell should keep the pressure on the Canadians and demand real progress on halting the pollution into Alaska’s backyard. The International Joint Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 can be a powerful weapon and Parnell should work with the State Department to invoke this treaty, as has been done in Montana and the Great Lakes to address upstream pollution threats from Canada.

This Treaty states that “waters flowing across the boundary shall not be polluted on either side to the injury of health or property on the other” and establishes an International Joint Commission, whose purpose is to resolve transboundary water disputes. Another opportunity is the ongoing land use planning negotiations between the government of British Columbia and the Taku River Tlingit First Nation. Constructive input from Alaska will help ensure the vital upriver salmon spawning areas are protected and that halting the AMD pollution becomes a priority.

An international border does divide the Taku on the map, but this is not a barrier to salmon or pollution, nor should it be a barrier to cooperation among neighbors to protect valuable shared resources such as clean water and wild salmon. Chris Zimmer is the Alaska Campaign Director for Rivers Without Borders in Juneau. In his spare time he enjoys salmon and steelhead fishing, deer hunting, fly tying, strong IPA’s and peaty single malt Scotch.