Blog Without Borders
As we plunge into 2017, wondering what the implications of a new U.S. federal government will be to Alaska – British Columbia transboundary watersheds, it’s good to at least see some favorable signs for the Taku from both sides of the border.
On the heels of last September’s Chieftain bankruptcy, there has been no proponent for developing a new Tulsequah Chief mine, a proposal which has been nothing but controversial and now has no support. BC is now saying some of the right things about finally cleaning up acid mine drainage from old mine works at the site dating to the 1950s. Despite years of permit violations, BC has long tied any hope of ending the Taku pollution to opening a new much bigger mine on site. We’ve been calling this what it is; narrow thinking biased toward mining. The Taku deserves better, and the new stance by the province, reflected in recent media, is welcome. Ketchikan Daily News editorial The Yukon News The Juneau Empire ktoo radio story
But while headlines suggest cleanup will happen, a closer read shows this is still far from a done deal. BC continues to allege, without scientific justification, that the acid drainage is environmentally benign, an excuse it appears for delaying action. The province also continues to say it is hoping a new company steps forth to resurrect the Tulsequah Chief project. And “more studies” are being called for.
Still, having BC even acknowledge the Tulsequah Chief acid mine drainage and talk about addressing it is a huge step forward toward keeping the Taku wild and thriving. Our challenge now is to sustain pressure from both sides of the border, including encouraging Alaska to be aggressive on the matter, toward making cleanup happen and finally moving beyond mining for the lower Taku.
In this regard, a quote from Alaska’s Governor Walker’s January 18 State of the State address is noteworthy…
“And I thank the British Columbia government for recognizing the responsibility to clean up the old Tulsequah Chief mine. Water doesn’t recognize political borders. I am committed to protecting our waters and the rich resources they support.”
Still words, but encouraging to hear, echoing what we have long been asking for.
An economic study released by the McDowell Group in November 2016 is informative regarding the value of several transboundary watersheds. The study was commissioned by Salmon Beyond Borders and focused specifically on the Taku, Iskut-Stikine, and Unuk watersheds, the three river systems most threatened by British Columbia headwaters mining proposals. Over a thirty year horizon, the combined economic value of these three watersheds approaches $1 billion. And this figure only considers commercial and recreational fishing, to say nothing of other direct and indirect values.
McDowell is an Alaska based research and consulting firm. Its study can be viewed here: southeast-alaska-transboundary-watershed-economic-impacts
It’s always worth stressing that no expenditure is needed to make these watersheds so productive, or to keep them that way. In contrast to salmon ecosystems to the south in which untold millions of dollars are being spent to try to bring back a vestige of the fisheries bounty that was traded off for development, the watersheds shared by British Columbia and Alaska need no such investment. They simply need humility and foresight demonstrated by their stewards, appreciating what we have now – as underscored by the McDowell study – and insuring that it’s not squandered.
It’s good to see the newsletter recently released from Children Of The Taku Society (COTTS). It’s a fresh indigenous voice for Taku River Tlingit First Nation territory and conservation. The newsletter is here: children-of-the-taku-newsletter-6
With the recent bankruptcy of Chieftain Metals, and a lull in the push to open up the lower Taku to mining, the main message of the newsletter is particularly timely. COTTS is calling for something different for the Taku. Rather than trying to facilitate the extremely contentious Tulsequah Chief mine project, which now has no backers, COTTS is urging BC to consider providing real jobs for local people restoring the Tulsequah site and confronting its decades old acid mine drainage problem. COTTS sees an opportunity for governments at multiple levels on both sides of the border to join together, with industry, in a long overdue effort to do some real good for the Taku and people who call it home while safeguarding the region’s top salmon producing river system.
BC has long been tying cleanup of the historic Tulsequah pollution problem to getting a new mine development started on site. A second bankruptcy of a Tulsequah Chief mine proponent in seven years seems like good reason to advocate a new approach, doing what’s needed now, and COTTS has become a leading voice for just that.
Rivers Without Borders is honored to be supportive of this emerging and inspiring indigenous conservation voice for the Taku.
On September 6 Chieftain Metals announced that it was entering receivership and that most of its directors have resigned. Chieftain has been trying to get the Tulsequah Chief mine development going in the lower Taku watershed since 2010. Its predecessor, Redcorp, went bankrupt as well. In both cases, sustained opposition from both sides of the border has made things difficult for the proponents and has been an important factor in these bankruptcies. Linked here is our press release about this development.
Fifteen years of intense controversy, lawsuits, continued acid mine pollution and other compliance problems at the site, and a huge waste of taxpayer money, should inform government, industry, and potential investors alike that mining in the lower Taku isn’t such a good idea. The bankruptcy creates an opportunity for British Columbia to finally do the right thing and clean up the Tulsequah mess and, heeding overwhelming First Nation, Native Alaskan, and commercial fishing resistance to the project, withdraw the mineral tenures so that the region’s top transboundary salmon system will no longer be jeopardized.
As Alaska’s congressional delegation continues urging the U.S. State Department to become engaged in the transboundary region, Tulsequah Chief is a perfect example of why this is so imperative.
Rivers Without Borders has been spotlighting the acid mine drainage problem at the proposed Tulsequah Chief mine site. This effort in turn helped spur BC government to finally admit that there is a problem and even call for remedial action. While this is an important step in the right direction, BC has unfortunately also downplayed the problem, suggesting that the ecological impact of the decades old discharge into the Taku watershed is minor. BC has based this assertion at least in part on a Tulsequah River water quality assessment carried out by Chieftain Metals, the company behind the Tulsequah Chief mine proposal.
Rivers Without Borders hired an independent aquatic scientist to review the Chieftain water quality assessment. Her report, which we made public on June 8, documents many problems, inconsistencies, and flaws with the company sponsored assessment and calls to question government claims regarding ecological impacts. The press release we put out, an RWB fact sheet summarizing the findings, and the independent scientist’s report are linked below.
Maintaining pressure on the Tulsequah pollution problem is crucial toward keeping the Taku watershed thriving. The acid mine drainage is a vivid reminder of why developing the Tulsequah Chief mine in one of North America’s premier wild salmon systems is a bad idea. That the problem persists also underscores the need for enhanced transboundary watershed stewardship and protections such as the International Joint Commission could bring about.
On May 12 the full Alaska Congressional delegation sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry requesting federal government engagement, including consideration of an International Joint Commission (IJC) convening, focused on BC headwaters development concerns. Downstream Alaska tribes, commercial fishermen, and communities have been calling for this for many months, and it is heartening to see elected officials at this level responding this way. Of course the letter is only one notable step in a long journey toward safeguarding the ecological and cultural values of transboundary watersheds, but it’s a big one. Please find the letter and related U.S. and Canadian press below.
On a separate but related matter, it’s noteworthy that an editorial was published by the Juneau Empire: Empire Editorial_ Deja vu over mining mess _ Juneau Empire – Alaska’s Capital City Online Newspaper just a few days later saying enough is enough with regard to ongoing acid mine drainage into the Taku watershed at the site of the proposed Tulsequah Chief mine. The company behind the contentious project is violating its permit, and BC has failed, for many years, to do anything about it. Making this connection between Tulsequah Chief and BC’s failed mining oversight (likewise echoed by the recent BC Auditor General’s findings) has made the push for the sort of international, indigenous, and scientific engagement the IJC could offer more than an exercise toward improving watershed stewardship. It’s critical if we are to bring about ecosystem based watershed planning and decision making with enforceable standards essential to keeping the transboundary watersheds intact and thriving.
The May 2016 release of a British Columbia Auditor General report titled “An Audit of Compliance and Enforcement in the Mining Sector” echoes what Rivers Without Borders has been saying for years. According to the Auditor General’s own press release, “We found almost every one of our expectations for a robust compliance and enforcement program … were not met.” The 109 page report should further spur Alaska – BC transboundary watershed interest and concern relative to proposed BC headwaters mining development, especially downstream, and the growing call for an International Joint Commission convening to address those concerns.
The BC audit points to the catastrophic Mount Polley tailings dam failure of summer 2014, and the ongoing acid mine drainage discharge related to the controversial Tulsequah Chief mine proposal, as notable examples of its findings.
The same week the Auditor General’s report came out, an item in the Juneau Empire solidified the audit’s findings with coverage of the Tulsequah Chief issue. “Tulsequah Chief mine owner descends further in financial hole” documents both the proponent company’s financial problems and permit compliance issues, which BC has to date failed to enforce. This was followed by an editorial in that same paper a few days later. Quoting the article, “Many Southeast Alaskans are wondering how many more years, or decades, it will take before this mining mess is cleaned up and given priority status.”
Both the Auditor’s report and the Juneau Empire piece are linked below.
RWB will continue doing all it can to highlight the connection between the abysmal oversight of Tulsequah Chief and regional watershed concerns now accentuated by the Auditor General.
New Report Assessing Mine Tailings Impoundment Design And Safety In BC Transboundary Watershed Headwaters ReleasedWill Patric : Mar 25.2016
On March 22 a new report was released titled Post-Mount Polley Tailings Dam Safety In Transboundary British Columbia. It assesses best practices – or lack thereof – regarding northwest BC mine tailings design since the catastrophic Mount Polley tailings impoundment failure in 2014. The BC government promised things would be different following the disaster, but the report unfortunately shows otherwise. As the downstream demand for measures to safeguard Alaska – BC transboundary watershed salmon habitat grows, it is vital that this continued disregard of best practices relative to tailings management is known.
Dr. Dave Chambers with Center for Science in Public Participation authored the report developed with Earthworks and MiningWatch Canada. Rivers Without Borders partnered in the project and cultivated support from numerous NGOs signing on.
Links to articles related to the press release describing the report’s findings, and the report itself, are here.
The downstream Alaska demand for International Joint Commission (IJC) oversight and engagement in the Alaska – British Columbia transboundary watersheds is unprecedented. It’s coming from tribes, commercial fishermen, communities, and elected officials concerned about proposed mining development in the BC headwaters threatening outstanding salmon habitat. An IJC convening ultimately requires a federal level referral by the US. and/or Canada under the auspices of the Boundary Waters Treaty between the two nations. IJC engagement is by no means a “silver bullet” for keeping the Taku, Iskut-Stikine, and Unuk watersheds wild and thriving, but it would make possible the kind of international dialog, stakeholder involvement, and establishment of enforceable water quality standards that we believe is absolutely essential toward ecosystem based watershed stewardship.
The interest is not limited solely to the downstream U.S. side. Canadian NGOs are also joining the call. Following is a —- letter to Alaska’s Governor demonstrating Canadian NGO support for the BC – Alaska transboundary watersheds IJC idea.
The Southeast Alaska Estuaries Initiative is a collaboration of Rivers Without Borders, Dr. Daniel Schindler with the University of Washington School of Fisheries and Aquatic Science, and the Natural Capital Project. It’s foremost a vision of Sam Skaggs of Juneau. His Skaggs Foundation has been a long time backer of Alaska conservation efforts. Sam recognized that a wealth of knowledge about southeast Alaska’s estuary system is now available, based on extensive survey, research, and GIS work in recent years. But this accumulation of estuaries knowledge is doing little to advance conservation, and thus the idea of our Initiative. Its goal is to determine monetary values of Tongass estuaries through a range of products and uses integral to the estuaries and to highlight those values. Salmon of course is an obvious example. But what about other commercial and sport fisheries? Shell fish? Tourism? Subsistence harvesting? Whale and wildlife watching? Etc.
We know SE Alaska’s estuary system is largely intact and one of the most productive in North America if not the world. Being able to credibly assign specific numbers to this value will help us build conservation interest in a tangible way Alaskans can appreciate. And of course the timing is crucial since the estuaries are still in such great shape but the threat of upstream development that would feed into them is growing. As Rivers Without Borders and our tribal/First Nation, commercial fishing, community, and NGO partners spotlight potential upstream watershed development threats, additional focus on the downstream estuaries and their value to Alaska will help us tell a more complete transboundary story and cultivate conservation interest where it can make a difference.
Part one of our Initiative is about research and numbers crunching, melding ecological and economic data. The second part will be storytelling, bringing new attention to a thriving, bountiful ecosystem. Sam likes to say, only partially joking, that if we do our job the Tongass National Forest will be renamed the Tongass National Forest and Estuary.
If you would like to learn more about who is involved in the Southeast Alaska Estuary Initiative, and what we are trying to do, please contact us.