Blog Without Borders
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.
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.
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
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: April 28, 2015
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, firstname.lastname@example.org
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.”
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 IMMEDIATE RELEASE
February 24, 2015
Chris Zimmer, Rivers Without Borders
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.”
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 MinesChris Zimmer : Jan 30.2015
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
January 30, 2015
Mark Jensen, Mayor, Petersburg Borough, email@example.com, 907-518-0009
Mim McConnell, Mayor, City and Borough of Sitka, firstname.lastname@example.org, 907-738-2888
Clay Bezenek, commercial salmon gillnetter, email@example.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, firstname.lastname@example.org, 907-821-8885
Marsh Skeele, commercial salmon troller and Vice President, Sitka Salmon Shares, email@example.com, 907-738-9509
Heather Hardcastle, commercial salmon gillnetter and co-owner, Taku River Reds, firstname.lastname@example.org, 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 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.
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.
December 19, 2014
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Rob Sanderson Jr., Co-Chair, United Tribal Transboundary Mining Work Group, 2nd Vice President, Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, email@example.com, 907-821-8885
Carrie James, Tribal Council Treasurer, Ketchikan Indian Community, Co-Chair, United Tribal Transboundary Mining Work Group, firstname.lastname@example.org, 907-821-8167
Chris Zimmer, Alaska Campaign Director, Rivers Without Borders, email@example.com, 907-586-2166
Dale Kelley, Executive Director, Alaska Trollers Association, firstname.lastname@example.org, 907-586-9400
Brian Lynch, Executive Director, Petersburg Vessel Owners Association, email@example.com, 907-772-9323
CANADA GREENLIGHTS CONTROVERSIAL MINE NEAR ALASKA BORDER
DECISION DISREGARDS CONCERNS FROM ALASKA FISHERMEN, TRIBES, TOURISM OPERATORS, LAWMAKERS AND CONGRESSIONAL DELEGATION
(Juneau, Alaska) – A proposed mega-mine in Canada near Alaska’s rich salmon fisheries moved a step closer to development today.
Canada’s federal government approved the controversial Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell (KSM) mine project located in northwest British Columbia (B.C.) just 19 miles from the B.C./Southeast Alaska border. In doing so, Canada rejected calls from thousands of Canadians and Alaskans, including the state’s congressional delegation, individual legislators, fishing organizations, tribal leaders, and tourism operators for a “Panel Review” of the mine project in the B.C. headwaters of the transboundary Unuk River that drains into Misty Fiords National Monument near Ketchikan, Alaska. Canadian mine proposals that pose significant risks, like KSM, can be subject to the independent, expert scrutiny of a Panel Review—the highest level of environmental review allowed under Canadian law.
Since the B.C. provincial government has already approved the KSM proposal, the project now proceeds to the B.C./Canadian interagency permitting process.
“Given the size of KSM, the potential for tailings dam failures, long-term acid mine drainage and other threats to Alaska’s downstream waters and salmon, a Panel Review would have provided a more rigorous way to assess whether or not KSM can be developed without compromising water quality or fisheries in the Unuk. Canada’s rejection of a Panel Review is yet another reason why we can’t depend on the Canadian mine review process and need U.S. State Department action,” said Dale Kelley, executive director of Alaska Trollers Association.
If built, KSM would be one of the world’s largest open pit mines. The design calls for three open pits, one underground mine, and large tailings and waste rock dumps that would contain billions of tons of acid-generating waste and toxic sludge. The dumps and polluted water will have to be maintained and treated in perpetuity to ensure acid mine drainage and toxic heavy metals do not leach into the surface and ground water and pollute the Unuk River.
“The Canadian government has disregarded our concerns about how KSM could pollute our waters and destroy our salmon fisheries and jobs. Salmon and clean water underpin our culture, economy, and way of life. I’m extremely disappointed,” said Carrie James, tribal council treasurer of the Ketchikan Indian Community and co-chair of the United Tribal Transboundary Mining Work Group, a consortium of 12 tribes working together to protect transboundary rivers.
James noted that the same Canadian regulators that approved KSM allowed the Mount Polley mine to operate. Mount Polley, in central B.C., experienced a catastrophic tailings dam failure on August 4, 2014, unleashing an estimated 6.6 billion gallons of tailings and wastewater into waters leading to the Fraser River, one of Canada’s most important salmon rivers. It’s been called one of Canada’s worst environmental disasters.
“Mount Polley was a wake-up call for us. We can’t let Alaska waters be polluted by B.C. mine waste,” said James.
If it receives permits and financing, KSM would be a huge, acid-generating mine, similar to the proposed Pebble mine in southwest Alaska. Pebble has turned into the one of the world’s most heated environmental controversies because of the huge risks it poses to Bristol Bay’s rich sockeye salmon fisheries.
With its approval of the project today, the Canadian government concluded, as long as KSM carries out the proposed mitigation, “the Project is not likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects.”
“Canada assumes that KSM’s developer, Seabridge Gold, will be able to mitigate KSM’s pollution. But there’s no guarantee the untested and unprecedented water treatment system will work. The stakes are too high to simply assume a mine of this size, with such massive long-term water-treatment needs, and with such huge amounts of toxic waste to contain, can be operated without polluting water and salmon habitat,” said Chris Zimmer, a sport fisherman and Alaska campaign director of Rivers Without Borders, a non-governmental organization working with several partners on the Salmon Beyond Borders campaign.
Many Alaskans say polluted discharges from KSM could violate the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty between Canada and the United States that states “waters flowing across the boundary shall not be polluted on either side to the injury of health or property on the other.” The treaty provides for an International Joint Commission (IJC) to review transboundary water issues and provide recommendations to avoid pollution across the Canada/U.S. border.
“We have a storm brewing on the B.C./Alaska border. The Alaska congressional delegation has written to the State Department with concerns and now we need our representatives in Washington, D.C. to formally request the State Department to refer this matter to the IJC. Our new governor, Bill Walker, also needs to speak out. The time is now, folks,” said Rob Sanderson Jr., co-chair of the United Tribal Transboundary Mining Work Group and 2nd vice president of Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska.
KSM is the largest of six major B.C. mines currently proposed in the transboundary region bordering Southeast Alaska. These mines are located near three key salmon rivers, the Taku, Stikine and Unuk, which flow from B.C. into Alaska. The mines are in various stages of permitting and development, and all raise red flags for many Alaskans, including tribes, commercial and sport fishermen, tourism operators, municipalities and political leaders who have spoken out in numerous resolutions and letters.
“Our concerns are not about just KSM. We are worried about the long-term effects across a broad landscape, including the Taku, Stikine and Unuk Rivers, from numerous open pit and underground mines, roads, energy projects and other industrialization that is happening without any binding international process to address the long-term and cumulative effects of such development. Canada’s mine review process is not equipped to address these concerns. But that is exactly what the IJC can review,” said Brian Lynch, executive director of Petersburg Vessel Owners Association.
Visit www.salmonbeyondborders.org for more information.
Salmon Beyond Borders is a growing community of sport and commercial fishermen, community leaders, Tribal and First Nations members, tourism and recreation business owners and concerned citizens united across the Alaska/British Columbia border to defend our transboundary salmon rivers from some of the largest proposed mines the world has ever seen. Find us online here or on Facebook.
For more about the proposed KSM mine, check out our webpage on the Unuk watershed.
The end of 2014 is a good time to reflect on what Rivers Without Borders is trying to do, and why …
As the director of Rivers Without Borders (founded 15 years ago this month!), I focus on the watersheds of northwest British Columbia and southeast Alaska. But recently I attended two conferences outside that realm. One was about the Columbia River basin. The other was about Puget Sound. What struck me most about both gatherings was the extent and diversity of environmental problems being addressed within these two iconic water systems, and the amount of money, energy, and scientific expertise that’s being poured into them to try to restore a vestige of the ecological productivity that’s been squandered by development over the past century. The director of the Puget Sound Partnership made this point with an interesting illustration. As she put it, emphasizing degrees of complexity, “There’s baking a cake. Then there’s putting someone on the moon. And then there’s trying to restore Puget Sound.” As in stopping industrial pollution. Resurrecting estuaries and wetlands. Getting salmon around dams. Addressing pesticide and herbicide runoff from agriculture. Urban growth. Exotic species. Stream channeling. Logging. Mining. Removing heavy metals from water and sediment. Turning reservoirs back into rivers. And on and on with many hundreds of millions of dollars being spent chipping away at these daunting challenges.
In the BC – Alaska transboundary region, we don’t have to spend a dime on habitat restoration. Its watersheds are still amazingly intact and, not coincidentally, world class wild salmon strongholds rich in biodiversity. Close to perfect. All they need is humility to let them be; foresight to keep them as is.
That’s why Rivers Without Borders is determined to stop Tulsequah Chief, an extremely controversial mine proposal slated for the Taku, the largest totally intact watershed on the Pacific coast of North America and the transboundary region’s number one salmon system. And why we’re raising awareness of other mining proposals in transboundary watershed headwaters – the KSM mega mine in particular – and encouraging calls for an international conversation about the future of these international rivers.
With the needs of salmon in particular driving concern, the downstream demand for careful consideration and safeguarding of what we have, before we lose it, is growing. Most recently the National Congress of American Indians and several Alaska Native associations passed formal resolutions asking for the convening of an International Joint Commission under the auspices of the Boundary Waters Treaty to address headwaters mining concerns. Seven southeast Alaska communities have now passed formal resolutions for the same thing. This echoes what we’ve been calling for, namely ecosystem-based planning and decision making about these watersheds. This means getting downstream interests heard and registering upstream, across the border, where development is proposed. The international conversation. This, we believe, is the best hope for advancing conservation.
We have a long way to go, but we’ve made some real progress. The future of the Taku looks brighter, thanks to the Taku River Tlingit First Nation’s lawsuit and fishermen standing up to a really bad mine proposal on Alaska’s doorstep just upstream of the Taku’s premier salmon habitat. And there’s a rising tide of voices saying it can’t be business as usual in the BC – Alaska transboundary watersheds. Here we still have a chance to save some spectacularly wild and intact working ecosystems. With humility and foresight.
Best wishes for the new year ahead.
The Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell (KSM) proposed mine is a massive project comprised of four deposits that would be mined as a combined open-pit and underground block-cave mine. The proposed operation is so big it would straddle two watersheds – the Unuk and the Nass – in two locations connected by twin 23-km (14 mile) long tunnels – extending under a glacier – which would transport miners and ore between the pits, and the mill and tailings impoundment. It is expected to process between 120,000 to 180,000 tonnes of ore per day over a mine life of 55 years. Opposition to the project has increased, with some analysts comparing it to the proposed Pebble Project in southwest Alaska.
Significant risks include:
- Unfavorable economics – KSM’s low grade ore, remote location and lack of infrastructure make its economics problematic according to analysts.
- Mining under glaciers has seldom been tried and is difficult – Very few mining companies have attempted it for a mine of this size, and significant operational challenges have occurred when they have, including tragic consequences.
- Unprecedented water management – KSM would need to process almost 21 BILLION gallons of water per year compared to Pebble’s proposed 13 billion and the Bingham Canyon mine’s 3 billion gallons per year.
- Legal uncertainties – the twin tunnels run under property claimed by two other companies who are currently suing each other. Both contest Seabridge’s access rights. First Nations also have concerns about the project.
- International opposition – KSM is opposed by eleven U.S. federally recognized tribes, and southeast Alaska’s billion-dollar commercial fishing industry.
Check out the report!
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
November 10, 2014
Chris Zimmer, Zimmer@riverswithoutborders.org, 907/586-2166
CHIEFTAIN METALS’ TULSEQUAH CHIEF BARGING PLAN AT ODDS WITH PAST BARGING PROBLEMS AND STUDIES SHOWING BARGING WON’T WORK
Taku River Barging Faces Renewed Opposition in Alaska
(Juneau) Chieftain Metals’, on October 20, announced an update to the December 2012 feasibility study for the proposed Tulsequah Chief mine. The most significant change is a plan to access the mine using barges on the Taku River, rather than via an access road to Atlin, British Columbia.
“This flip-flop from road to barge is very surprising. None of the barging efforts by Chieftain in 2011 and previous mine owner Redfern in 2007 and 2008 worked as planned and Chieftain’s own access report concluded in 2011 that none of the barging options were practical,” said Chris Zimmer of Rivers Without Borders. “The threat of salmon habitat damage from groundings and accidents, as well as spills of diesel fuel, cyanide and other chemicals, will certainly raise concerns in Juneau.”
Concentrate and supplies would be shipped to and from the mine using conventional river barges for five months a year, with concentrate to be barged to Seattle for export to Asia. Few details about the proposed barging plan have been provided. A Technical Report will be released by December 4.
Chieftain’s October 2011 assessment of several barging alternatives concluded none of the options would work. The assessment isn’t publicly available, but a Chieftain briefing paper from January 2012 summarized the results of the study:
“The Downstream Access Practicability Assessment Report, which was completed in October 2011,…concluded that none of the barging options were practical due to low flow levels on the river which are insufficient to sustain operational requirements….Additionally, the economic and financial implications put the project at risk of being unable to proceed.”
Chieftain’s own Feasibility Study from December 2012 raises several significant problems with barging:
- “Regarding the 2013 (and to a lesser extent, 2014) barging campaign, there is a risk the river levels will not support a four to six week campaign.”
- “…the Tulsequah River is not easily navigated due to high and variable flows, debris hazards, and shallow areas…would require more or less continuous dredging during the shipping season to maintain an open channel. The period available to conventional barging varies from year to year, ranging from less than three months to as much as six months;”
“The new plan calls for five months of barging a year, but experience and Chieftain’s own Feasibility Study show this is unrealistic,” added Zimmer. “It is very unlikely Chieftain would be granted Alaska Department of Fish and Game and Army Corps of Engineers permits for river dredging.”
Problems with previous barging include:
- In May 2008 Redfern announced plans to ship 20,000 tons of supplies to the Tulsequah Chief site in 200 barge loads, yet was only able to accomplish about 30 barge runs due to river conditions. Redfern called this a “key challenge” in announcing third quarter financial results.
- In 2007 and 2008 there were numerous reports of barge and tug groundings (none of which were reported to the U.S. Coast Guard as required by law). In July 2008 a tug almost capsized.
- In June 2011, Chieftain was unable to complete all planned barge runs due to low water levels. Chieftain planned 8 trips that fall but couldn’t do any of them due to low water, causing a loss of $750,000.
Since buying the mine in 2010 Chieftain has emphasized a road is vital to mine development and that barging isn’t viable. “Chieftain’s own studies show barging won’t work. Experience to date shows barging on the Taku is extremely challenging and unreliable. This latest plan seems a recognition the mine and road are not economical and is a desperate last ditch attempt from a company that has demonstrated little ability to move this project forward,” said Zimmer.
Redfern’s conventional barging in 2007 and 2008 generated much concern in Juneau. In 2011 Juneau legislators formed the Taku River Task Force to look into concerns about river barging. Chieftain COO Keith Boyle emphasized in his testimony to the Task Force that Chieftain had determined river barging is “impracticable” and investors were not supportive of barging.
The mine would be in northwest British Columbia, very close to the Alaska border and just upstream of some of the Taku River’s premier salmon habitat. The new barging proposal is likely to face strong opposition in Juneau. The Taku is Southeast Alaska’s most productive salmon river and has significant commercial and recreational use. Barging could interfere with commercial, sport and personal use fishing, river navigation, floatplane landings and Alaska Department of Fish and Game research. Fishermen would undoubtedly again raise concerns about habitat damage due to barges grounding and plowing through the river bottom. Accidents and spills of diesel fuel, cyanide and other toxins are a distinct possibility. It is unlikely any kind of river dredging would be approved by regulatory agencies.
“This new barging plan fails to recognize the realities of the Taku River. It is shallow and fast, with frequently changing gravel bars and lots of logjams. The Taku is a tremendous fishery, with a large constituency of users in Southeast Alaska. Chieftain’s barging plan flies in the face of these realities, past experience and Chieftain’s own studies, and it will face a lot of opposition in Juneau,” said Zimmer.
For a pdf version of this release, click here.