Blog Without Borders

Alaska’s Congressional Delegation Stands Up For Transboundary Watersheds

Will Patric : Jun 6.2016

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.

5.12.16 Transboundary Letter to Sec Kerry – Alaska Delegation

Delegation asks Kerry for transboundary review _ The Alaska Journal of Commerce

Alaska asks John Kerry to raise B.C. mine pollution concerns with Canada – The Globe and Mail

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.

BC Auditor General’s Report On Mining Oversight Echoes Taku And Transboundary Watershed Concerns

Will Patric : May 18.2016

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.

Compliance and Enforcement Mining FINAL

Tulsequah Chief Mine owner defaults on debt payment, critics wonder about cleanup responsibility | Juneau Empire – Alaska’s Capital City Online Newspaper

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 Released

Will 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.

http://www.desmog.ca/2016/03/23/b-c-ignores-best-practices-allows-mount-polley-style-tailings-dams-alaska-border-new-report-finds

http://www.miningweekly.com/article/ngos-urge-bc-to-implement-tailings-storage-best-practice-as-it-review-mining-code-2016-03-22

https://www.earthworksaction.org/files/publications/Post-MountPolleyTailingsDamSafety.pdf

Growing International Support For International Joint Commission Transboundary Engagement

Will Patric : Feb 15.2016

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.

Letter to Alaska governor from British Columbia calling for IJC engagement 01-20-16

Southeast Alaska Estuaries Initiative Moving Into High Gear

Will Patric : Jan 19.2016

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.

Chilkat Highway Upgrade Update

Will Patric : Dec 18.2015

The state of Alaska is still pursuing plans for a major upgrade of the Haines Highway along the Chilkat River between the Borough of Haines and the northwest corner of British Columbia. RWB efforts were instrumental in getting the original Environmental Assessment for this project remanded as inadequate. A revised Environmental Assessment came out this fall, and RWB and fellow environmental advocates Lynn Canal Conservation, Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, and Alaska Audubon responded aggressively. The Chilkat Indian Village also has many concerns about the highway proposal which we share.

Alaska’s rationale for this six to eight year construction project through the world’s only designated Bald Eagle Preserve is alleged safety concerns. RWB wants the road to be safe, but we have pointed out that simply reducing the speed limit a little would accomplish that and save around $130 million. We have also observed that there are intersections in Seattle that see more traffic in five minutes than the lightly used Haines Highway gets in a week. Taxpayers should be outraged by this prioritization of scarce highway construction funding. But more important, degradation of salmon habitat providing the very basis of the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve is unacceptable.

RWB’s comments on the revised Haines Highway EA follow. The Chilkat River, and the one of a kind Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve along its banks, need advocates. If you share our concern about the highway, and would like to be a voice for eagles, salmon, and a spectacular transboundary river, please let us know.

Rivers Without Borders – Revised Haines Highway EA

British Columbia Finally Calling For Tulsequah Cleanup

Will Patric : Dec 10.2015

British Columbia is finally putting a little pressure on Chieftain Metals, at least in words, to bring its proposed Tulsequah Chief mine project into compliance with permits. The compliance issue involves the pollution legacy of a small scale underground mine on the site abandoned in the 1950s. Acid mine drainage from the old workings has been bleeding into the Taku watershed via the Tulsequah River ever since. Toward meeting permit requirements, Chieftain opened a water treatment facility to deal with the problem several years ago, but shut it down after only a few months citing cost and technical challenges. BC has largely ignored the ongoing pollution, so the attention now being shown by the province is welcome.

The timing of this attention is not surprising, however, given that BC has been trying to appease growing downstream Alaskan concerns about proposed mining in transboundary river headwaters. The concern mostly focuses on the extremely controversial Tulsequah Chief mine proposal for the lower Taku, the gigantic KSM mine proposal targeting the Unuk watershed and likewise very close to Alaska’s border, and the Red Chris mine’s seemingly rushed opening in the Iskut-Stikine watershed. Red Chris worries, for the record, have been fueled by the catastrophic failure of the Mount Polley mine tailings facility in southern BC in the summer of 2014. Imperial, the operator of Mount Polley, is the owner of Red Chris, and similarities between the two mines are striking. Anyway, it looks as if BC has decided that, if it’s going to get any traction winning over skeptical Alaskans about transboundary headwaters mining, demonstrating some regulatory resolve with Tulsequah would be wise.

Rivers Without Borders commends BC for finally showing interest in the Tulsequah issue. A November notice to Chieftain, citing numerous problems, has called on the company to “within 90 days … submit an overall plan to bring the mine into compliance.” Recent inspections of the Tulsequah site by BC government have documented more extensive compliance issues than we were aware of. But it’s disappointing, at the same time, that BC is alleging the acid mine drainage into the Taku, the region’s number one salmon watershed, is inconsequential when it has little basis for such statements. BC’s Minister of Energy and Mines, Bill Bennett, told the Juneau Empire that “… scientists on both sides of the border say there isn’t any environmental harm from what’s going into the Tulsequah River.” We do not believe that’s the case, and we’ve contracted an independent technical expert to assess the study by which Mr. Bennett is making this claim. Stay tuned …Non compliance release

Canadians and Americans Demand No More Mount Polleys

Chris Zimmer : Apr 28.2015

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: April 28, 2015

CONTACTS:

Monty Bassett, Documentary Filmmaker, 250-877-0961 or 250-847-5605
Chris Zimmer, Rivers Without Borders, 907-586-2166 or 907-988-8173,     Zimmer@riverswithoutborders.org
Wade Davis, BC Leadership Chair in Cultures and Ecosystems at Risk, Professor of Anthropology, University of British Columbia, daviswade@aol.com

Diverse group of Alaska Tribes, members of First Nations, businesses, organizations, scientists and individuals calls for end to wet mine tailings storage in B.C.

Today a large and diverse group of Canadians and Americans called on the British Columbia (B.C.) government to halt the permitting of wet tailings facilities for new and proposed mines in B.C. based on the Independent Expert Panel recommendations on the Mount Polley mine tailings disaster. Eighty-seven Alaska Native tribes, members of B.C. First Nations, businesses, prominent individuals, scientists, and conservation groups signed a letter to the B.C. government calling for a shift to newer and safer dry tailings storage technology.

“Wet tailings impoundments are an unacceptable financial and environmental liability now and for future generations,” said letter organizer Monty Bassett. “A failure by the B.C. government to stop further construction of wet tailings storage facilities would be a blatant disregard for safety and its own commitments to adopt Best Available Technologies and Practices. Dry stack is a proven tailings technology. Mining industry complaints about costs fly in the face of the Mount Polley report recommendation that costs should not trump safety.”

Statement of Opposition to Continued Permitting of Wet Tailings Facilities in BC. Click on image to view or download pdf.

Statement of Opposition to Continued Permitting of Wet Tailings Facilities in BC. Click on image to view or download pdf.

These concerns are based on recommendations by the Independent Expert Engineering Investigation and Review Panel, which released a report on the Mount Polley tailings failure in January 2015. The report found that unless significant changes are made in the way B.C. tailings dams are designed and maintained, more failures can be expected. The report’s principal recommendation calls for an end to outdated “hundred year old” wet tailings storage and conversion to “dry stack” tailings systems. According to page 120 of the report, “Improving technology to ensure against failures requires eliminating water both on and in the tailings: water on the surface, and water contained in the interparticle voids. Only this can provide the kind of failsafe redundancy that prevents releases no matter what.”

“We cannot afford another Mount Polley, especially at mines like Red Chris or the proposed Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell (KSM), which are much bigger and will have more toxic acidic tailings,” said Chris Zimmer of Rivers Without Borders. “Unless there are major changes to B.C. tailings storage, we will soon see more dangerous dams built across B.C. and in the headwaters of major transboundary salmon rivers such as the Stikine, Taku and Unuk. These tailings dumps will be toxic time bombs poised upstream of vital salmon habitat.”

Despite the Mount Polley report’s recommendations, just days after the Panel released its report, B.C.’s Ministry of Energy and Mines issued an “interim operating” permit for a wet-tailings facility at the Red Chris mine in northwestern B.C., in the headwaters of the transboundary, salmon-rich Stikine River. The interim permit expires May 4, 2015. The Red Chris facility, also owned by Imperial Metals, is similar to the one that failed at Imperial Metal’s Mount Polley mine in August, releasing almost 25 million cubic meters (6.6 billion gallons) of mine waste water and tailings into the Fraser River watershed.

“It is reckless for B.C. to permit the kind of outdated watered tailings facility at Red Chris that failed at Mount Polley and that the expert panel specifically recommends against,” said Zimmer. “The panel called Mount Polley a ‘loaded gun’ and B.C. is loading the chamber at Red Chris.”

According to an independent expert report commissioned by Imperial Metals, “any failure of the Red Chris impoundment will likely have a much more significant environmental impact than the Mount Polley failure.” This is also true of other mines such as KSM. The proposed KSM tailings facility is roughly six times that of Mount Polley’s.

“We know that a dam failure at mines like Red Chris or KSM could have far worse consequences than Mount Polley, yet the B.C. government and the mining industry are avoiding the one thing that could reduce the risk of such a failure,” said Zimmer. “The costs of such failures to downstream communities could dwarf the costs of implementing changes now.”

The lessons of Mount Polley show that tailings failures are very difficult and expensive to clean up, there are no insurance policies for tailings dams, mine company bonding doesn’t pay for accidents or disasters, and there are no clear mechanisms to compensate injured parties. Industry often can’t pay, which means either B.C. taxpayers end up paying for substantial environmental liabilities, or cleanup and compensation doesn’t happen.

“What we are saying is to do Red Chris right,” said author Wade Davis, who owns a lodge at the base of Mount Todagin where Red Chris is situated. “In the wake of Mount Polley, how can we trust wet tailings storage? Can we not expect the safest mine technology possible from Imperial Metals?”

The letter was sent to Bill Bennett, Minister of Energy and Mines; Mary Polak, Minister of Environment; Al Hoffman, Chief Inspector of Mines; Diane Howe, Deputy Chief Inspector of Mines; Norm MacDonald, MLA, Opposition Critic for Energy and Mines; and Doug Donaldson, MLA, Stikine.

For more information:  www.riverswithoutborders.org, www.wildborderwatersheds.org and www.cleanmining.ca

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Red Chris Mine Gets Permit Despite Recommendation Against Tailings Technology Used

Chris Zimmer : Feb 24.2015


FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
February 24, 2015

CONTACT:
Chris Zimmer, Rivers Without Borders
907/586-2166, Zimmer@riverswithoutborders.org

RED CHRIS MINE GETS PERMIT DESPITE RECOMMENDATION AGAINST TAILINGS TECHNOLOGY USED

B.C. Commitment To Mount Polley Report Mining Reforms In Doubt

 The British Columbia (B.C.) government’s decision to grant Imperial Metals an interim permit for the tailings facility at the Red Chris mine only three days after an independent review panel of the Mount Polley dam failure specifically recommended against this type of tailings technology is raising doubts about the provincial government’s commitment to implement all the mining reforms in the Mount Polley panel report. The Red Chris facility is similar to the one that failed at the Mount Polley mine in August, releasing almost 25 million cubic meters (6.6 billion gallons) of mine waste water and tailings into the Fraser River watershed.

“B.C. appears to be rushing Red Chris, which contradicts its own promises to implement all the recommendations of the Mount Polley expert panel,” said Chris Zimmer, Alaska Campaign Director for Rivers Without Borders. “It is reckless for B.C. to permit the kind of outdated watered tailings facility at Red Chris that failed at Mount Polley and that the panel specifically recommends against. The panel called Mount Polley a ‘loaded gun’ and B.C. has just loaded a round into the chamber at Red Chris.”

To view or download this press release in pdf format, please click on the image above.

To view or download this press release in pdf format, please click on the image above.

The Panel concluded “Mount Polley has shown the intrinsic hazards associated with dual-purpose impoundments storing both water and tailings.” It rejected “any notion that business as usual can continue” in B.C., noting that, without major changes, “on average there will be two [tailings dam] failures every 10 years and six every 30.” The Panel said B.C. is using outdated technology and recommended dry stack or similar Best Available Technologies for new tailings facilities, stating the cost of better technologies should not override safety.

B.C. Minister of Energy and Mines Bill Bennett said, “What we learn from this incident and how we respond to ensure it never happens again is profoundly important to British Columbia and to the mining industry…We will implement all of these recommendations…”

“Downstream salmon fisheries in Alaska could be ruined by a dam failure at B.C. mines proposed in the Taku, Stikine and Unuk watersheds,” said Zimmer. “The Panel recommendations should be fully and immediately applied at mines such as Red Chris, KSM and Tulsequah Chief. The Panel meant its recommendations to be implemented as a package, not a list to pick and choose from based on the cheapest options.”

Despite the Minister’s promise, on February 2, 2015, just one business day after the issuance of the panel’s report, the B.C. government gave the Red Chris mine – owned by Imperial Metals, the same company that owns Mount Polley – an interim permit to begin filling and “testing” its watered tailings facility in the headwaters of the Iskut River, the major tributary to the Stikine, one of the most important salmon producing systems in the transboundary region.

“B.C. ignored the fundamental recommendation from the Mount Polley panel report in issuing this permit for Red Chris,” said Zimmer. “Here was a test of B.C.’s commitment to the Mount Polley panel recommendations and it failed. People on both sides of the border will be closely watching to see if B.C. backs up its promises with real actions and real reform.”

An independent expert review of the Red Chris watered tailings impoundment design and construction found numerous concerns similar to those that have been raised about Mount Polley, including similar soil conditions and dam design. These experts also said, “any failure of the Red Chris impoundment will have a much more significant environmental impact than the Mount Polley failure.” No major modifications have been made to the design.

“The similarities between Mount Polley and Red Chris are worrisome. Even worse, experts say a dam failure at Red Chris would be much worse than the Mount Polley disaster,” said Zimmer. “It defies common sense that B.C. issued a permit for Red Chris right after the Mount Polley report recommended against that type of tailings facility.”

In an apparent attempt to relieve Alaskan concerns, Bennett stated that Alaskans “do not have the kind of information and understanding of how we do things here in British Columbia that they need to have.” He is now proposing a symposium in Southeast Alaska to discuss mining practices and explain B.C.’s “rigorous” mine permitting process.

“If B.C.’s process is so rigorous, how did a dam permitted by B.C. to last essentially forever fail in less than 20 years? Why has the Tulsequah Chief been polluting the Taku watershed for over 50 years?  Instead of insulting Alaskans by telling us we don’t know what’s going on, Bennett should immediately fully implement the Mount Polley report recommendations, clean up the Tulsequah Chief, and support a mechanism like the International Joint Commission that would be far more effective in resolving this issue than a one-day conference,” said Zimmer.

Mount Polley Mine Report Highlights Threats To Alaska Salmon, Fishing Jobs And Communities From BC Mines

Chris Zimmer : Jan 30.2015


FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

January 30, 2015

Contacts:
Mark Jensen
, Mayor, Petersburg Borough, mayorjensen@petersburgak.com, 907-518-0009
Mim McConnell, Mayor, City and Borough of Sitka, assemblymcconnell@cityofsitka.com, 907-738-2888
Clay Bezenek, commercial salmon gillnetter, saltybezenek@gmail.com, 907-617-4785
Rob Sanderson Jr., 2nd Vice President, Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska and Co-chair, United Tribal Transboundary Mining Work Group,   haida2009@gmail.com, 907-821-8885
Marsh Skeele, commercial salmon troller and Vice President, Sitka Salmon Shares, marsh.skeele@yahoo.com, 907-738-9509
Heather Hardcastle, commercial salmon gillnetter and co-owner, Taku River Reds, salmongal@mac.com, 907-209-8486

 

MOUNT POLLEY MINE REPORT HIGHLIGHTS THREATS TO ALASKA SALMON, FISHING JOBS AND COMMUNITIES FROM B.C. MINES

Rather than calming Alaskans’ worries, new report is a rallying cry for U.S. State Department action to demand better salmon safeguards from B.C.

A diverse group of Alaskans said a report released today on the Mount Polley mine disaster in British Columbia (B.C.) provides new evidence that mines planned and under construction in the B.C. headwaters of highly productive Southeast Alaska salmon rivers are a threat to multi-billion dollar fisheries and a way of life for thousands of Alaskans. They call for the U.S. State Department to engage in meaningful bilateral discussions with Canada that ensure better safeguards for salmon before such mines are allowed to move forward.

“Today’s report underscores that, when it comes to the safety of large-scale mines, B.C.’s track record speaks for itself. The Mount Polley disaster is a stark example of B.C.’s stewardship of a project that the government and the developer claimed was safe. We can’t let a similar accident taint the rivers of the transboundary region along the border between northwest B.C. and Southeast Alaska,” said Mark Jensen, mayor of Petersburg Borough, one of Southeast Alaska’s largest fishing communities.

Toxic waste flows through the breached wall of the tailings pond at Imperial Metals' Mount Polley gold-copper mine on August 4, 2014 and into Polley Lake, Hazeltine Creek and Quesnel Lake. The disaster sent an estimated 25 cubic metres (6.6 billion gallons) of toxic mine waste and wastewater into the Fraser River watershed. Photo Credit: Screenshot from Cariboo Regional District video.

Toxic waste flows through the breached wall of the tailings pond at Imperial Metals’ Mount Polley gold-copper mine on August 4, 2014 and into Polley Lake, Hazeltine Creek and Quesnel Lake. The disaster sent an estimated 25 million cubic metres (6.6 billion gallons) of toxic mine waste and wastewater into the Fraser River watershed. Photo Credit: Screenshot from Cariboo Regional District video.

Toxic waste flows through the breached wall of the tailings pond at Imperial Metals’ Mount Polley gold-copper mine on August 4, 2014 and into Polley Lake, Hazeltine Creek and Quesnel Lake. The disaster sent an estimated 25 million cubic metres (6.6 billion gallons) of toxic mine waste and wastewater into the Fraser River watershed. Photo Credit: Screenshot from Cariboo Regional District video.

The independent review panel appointed by the B.C. government concluded the dam failed due to a design flaw which was not caught in the permitting process. It stemmed from a portion of the dam’s foundation being built on glacial soil that proved to be unstable as the tailings pond grew heavier. One of the engineers on the panel described Mount Polley as a “loaded gun” waiting to go off. The panel recommended that B.C. adopt better practices and use best available technology with safety a priority over economics. Alaskans are concerned that such fundamental changes in B.C. mining practices won’t be adopted due to time and expense and that there is no guarantee that such changes will actually reduce the long-term risks of transboundary mines.

The Mount Polley tailings dam was approved by Canadian regulators to last in perpetuity, yet it failed in less than 20 years. The August 4, 2014, disaster sent an estimated 6.6 billion gallons of toxic mine waste and wastewater into the Fraser River watershed. The Fraser is one of Canada’s most important salmon-producing rivers. The environmental impacts of the spill will take years to fully comprehend, experts have said.

To view or download in pdf, click this image.

To view or download in pdf, click this image.

Mount Polley mine owner, Imperial Metals, is constructing a much larger mine, Red Chris, in the northwest B.C. headwaters of the Stikine River, one of Southeast Alaska’s most prolific salmon producers. A recent independent review of the Red Chris tailings storage facility found serious design flaws, raising concerns that a similar Mount Polley-style disaster would contaminate Alaska waters. Despite this, Imperial Metals still plans to open Red Chris mine in early 2015.

“The transboundary region supports fisheries vital to Southeast Alaska. A similar accident at a transboundary mine like Red Chris could release large quantities of tailings that are more toxic than the Mount Polley spill. The Mount Polley disaster was a clear sign that B.C. cannot assure us transboundary waters and fish won’t be polluted by the province’s aggressive mining agenda. The Sitka Assembly passed a resolution in October 2014 urging stronger oversight to ensure that Alaska resources are not harmed by upstream development in B.C. A review by the International Joint Commission would be a step in the right direction,” said Mim McConnell, mayor of the City and Borough of Sitka.

The International Joint Commission is a bilateral commission established by the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty, charged with resolving transboundary water disputes between the U.S. and Canada.

“Under the Boundary Waters Treaty, the U.S. and Canada are both committed to not polluting waters on their own side of the border to the injury of health or property on the other side of the border. Canada is not taking their treaty obligation seriously. We ask the State Department to work with Canada to ensure the treaty is respected and our interests are protected,” said Heather Hardcastle, a gillnetter and co-owner of Taku River Reds based in Juneau.

Even before the Mount Polley disaster, Alaskans had been pushing for the U.S. to have an equal seat at the table with Canada in discussions about how and if watersheds shared by both countries are developed. This equal footing currently doesn’t exist. The vast transboundary region is not only home to multi-billion dollar seafood and tourism industries, but to many tribal citizens, as well.

Multiple large-scale, open-pit mines like Red Chris are currently in various stages of development in the watersheds of three productive transboundary salmon rivers, the Taku, Stikine and Unuk, which flow from B.C. into Alaska. These projects raise red flags for many, including tribes, commercial and sport fishermen, tourism operators, municipalities and political leaders who have spoken out in numerous resolutions and letters.

“Today’s report raises more concerns than it answers. We need to halt these mines from moving ahead until our concerns are addressed. We have the right to be consulted on actions that could harm our culture and livelihoods, even if those actions are happening in Canada. This is why we need the State of Alaska and the State Department to do all they can to defend our way of life in the face of these threats,” said Rob Sanderson Jr., co-chair of the United Tribal Transboundary Mining Work Group, which includes 13 federally recognized tribes.

In late December 2014, despite thousands of objections from Alaskans and Canadians, including Alaska’s congressional delegation and legislators, the Canadian federal government approved KSM, a massive mine project just 19 miles upstream of the Alaska border. Critics compare the size of KSM to Pebble, a hugely controversial mine proposal in Bristol Bay. If built, KSM could leach acid mine drainage, heavy metals and other toxins into the transboundary Unuk River that drains into Misty Fjords National Monument near Ketchikan, Alaska.

Clay Bezenek, a Ketchikan-based gillnetter, is also frustrated with B.C.’s fast-tracked mining plans for projects like KSM.

“The Unuk River has been kept wild by the people of Southeast Alaska. The importance of the health of the Unuk to our commercial seine, gillnet and troll salmon fisheries can’t be overstated. To not have all concerned parties at the table when discussing projects of this magnitude is a mistake. I’m calling on Alaska Governor Bill Walker and on Secretary of State John Kerry to help get us to the table now,” said Bezenek.

Today’s report focuses on the technical and engineering reasons for the Mount Polley dam failure and does not address shortcomings in Canada’s mining regulations that may have contributed to the dam failure. Although the report recommended changes to mining practices, there is no guarantee any of these measures will be adopted at proposed transboundary mines or if such measures can ensure tailings dams will not fail over the very long term.

“The tailings dams at these mines are environmental time bombs. It’s not a question of if they are going to fail, it’s just a question of when. We just shouldn’t be putting large tailings dams near vital water sources and fish habitat,” said Marsh Skeele, a troller and vice president of Sitka Salmon Shares, a seafood company based in Sitka.

About the blog

Welcome to our blog. Check in here to read about recent activities in the transboundary region, as well as staff musings, and organizational updates. Enjoy the read!