Alaska, B.C., Tribal Interests Come Together To Seek Mining Protection For Southeast Rivers

The following press release is courtesy of Salmon Beyond Borders, Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission, Rivers Without Borders, and  SkeenaWild Conservation Trust:

JUNEAU, AK –  At their first joint public meeting today, Alaska’s Dunleavy Administration and the Province of British Columbia (B.C.) attempted to reassure the public they are working to protect people, imperiled salmon, and transboundary salmon rivers from B.C.’s modern-day Gold Rush at the headwaters of the shared Taku, Stikine, and Unuk Rivers. Peter Robb, Assistant Deputy Minister of the B.C. Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low-Carbon Innovation, stated that this region is where most of B.C.’s mining exploration is focused and where B.C. hopes to build more mines because “it is the ‘Golden Triangle’ after all.” This comment and the meeting presentations did little to allay or meaningfully address three long-term concerns and requests of Alaskans and British Columbians—asks that are only growing more urgent as transboundary salmon runs continue to plummet. 

First, Southeast Alaskans and British Columbians have been calling for cleanup of the Tulsequah Chief mine for decades. The mine, which was abandoned in 1957, has been polluting the Taku River watershed for 63 years. In August 2020, the B.C. government released a draft Closure and Reclamation Plan for the Tulsequah Chief Mine Site. However, this Plan is more of an options package with numerous unanswered questions than a specific plan with clear timelines and procedures. 

“Today’s presentation did not provide much clarity. While it is encouraging to see B.C. take some actions to address the ongoing pollution from Tulsequah Chief, we are very much concerned about the slow pace, lack of funding, and lack of a clear and detailed commitment to full cleanup and closure of Tulsequah Chief. B.C. has taken no action to hold any of the previous owners of the mine accountable, including Teck Resources, which raises concerns about cleanup of the Tulsequah Chief, and also for B.C.’s commitment to a ‘polluter pays’ policy,” said Chris Zimmer of Rivers Without Borders.

“Tulsequah Chief is one of B.C.’s top 12 polluting and risky mines for its pollution of a top salmon-producing watershed and for the financial risks it has imposed on B.C.’s public. A regulatory overhaul is urgently needed in B.C. before the many large-scale mines being proposed and approved on transboundary waters amplify these types of risks and negative impacts on both sides of the border,” urged Adrienne Berchtold, Mining Impacts Researcher for SkeenaWild Conservation Trust in British Columbia.

Secondly, there is broad support from political, community, and Indigenous leaders on both sides of the border for B.C. to require companies with transboundary mines to post a full reclamation bond at permitting to ensure full mine cleanup at closure–in order to avoid chronic pollution like that at Tulsequah Chief. The State of Alaska requires this full reclamation bond, but B.C. still does not require this of companies who operate or wish to operate some of North America’s largest open-pit mines along shared salmon rivers.

“With what we’ve seen play out at Tulsequah Chief — which is tiny compared to B.C.’s massive projects already operating or underway near the Stikine and Unuk Rivers — how the heck are Alaskans supposed to trust that B.C. will hold companies accountable for impacts to our shared resources if their policies do not require them to do so,” asked Jill Weitz, director of Salmon Beyond Borders. “Today’s presentation and the AK/B.C. working group’s efforts to date are simply about sharing information. Sharing information is good, but it doesn’t protect the communities of this region from the industrialization of the headwaters of our largest salmon-producing rivers.” 

Thirdly, Alaska Tribes, municipalities, and legislators, as well as congressional delegations and thousands of individual Alaskans and British Columbians have called for years for the U.S., Canada, and Indigenous governments to work with local communities to secure binding protections for shared international rivers. Although the Alaska-B.C. Bilateral Working Group just concluded their Transboundary Rivers Monitoring Program for good, so as to not “duplicate efforts” and to defer to “the great work of the U.S.G.S and Tribes” for ongoing monitoring work, Alaska and B.C. officials still maintain they have everything under control with their unfunded, non-binding agreements. 

“Why is this the first public meeting by Alaska/British Columbia since the Walker-Mallott Administration?” Rob Sanderson, Jr, Chair, Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission (SEITC). “Out-of-control B.C. mining needs more attention, especially for and with Tribes and First Nations.”