Alaska senators gain support on transboundary mining issues

  • British Columbia’s Taku River valley is seen in this file photo. A bipartisan group of U.S. senators led by the Alaska delegation is continuing to press for additional transboundary watershed protections from upstream mining in Canada. (AP photo/File/Vancouver Sun)

Senators from the Western U.S. are joining the Alaska congressional delegation to press the issue of Canadian mining practices in transboundary watersheds .

The bipartisan group of six senators — Mike Crapo, R-Idaho; Jim Risch, R-Idaho; Jon Tester, D-Mont.; Steve Daines, R-Mont.; Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.; and Patty Murray, D-Wash. — sent a letter along with Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan June 13 to British Columbia Premier John Horgan highlighting the steps states and the federal government have taken to monitor transboundary rivers and what they want provincial officials to do in return.

They were compelled to send the correspondence because there weren’t enough delegates to the International Joint Commission from either country to hold its biannual meeting in April, according to the letter.

IJC spokeswoman Sally Cole-Misch said it took roughly a year for President Donald Trump’s three appointees to the commission to be confirmed by the Senate and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed three new Canadian commissioners as soon as the terms of those appointed by his predecessor were completed.

The panel of six new IJC commissioners was sworn in May 17.

The Boundary Waters Treaty with Canada established the IJC in 1909 specifically to settle disputes over watersheds that cross or comprise the international border.

For years, members of the Alaska congressional delegation have been asking provincial leaders, and domestically, State Department officials, to address potential water quality problems from large hard rock mines at the upper reaches of transboundary watersheds in British Columbia; this is the first time senators from other border states have formally joined them. In the Lower 48, transboundary concerns have centered on Canadian coal mines.

While numerous Alaska environmental, commercial fishing and Alaska Native groups have called for IJC involvement to provide further protection for Alaska salmon fisheries downstream from mining activity, the commission can only be spurred by a formal call from either the State Department or Canada’s Global Affairs Department.

Attempts by the Alaska delegation to get former Secretary of State John Kerry to review Alaska’s concerns regarding Canadian mining activity in transboundary watersheds largely proved unfruitful.

Concerns over the British Columbia mine permitting process were heightened after the 2014 Mount Polley mine tailings dam failure. The Mount Polley copper and gold mine is in the upper reaches of the large Fraser River watershed, a major salmon producer for Canada and the U.S. A British Columbia auditor general report concluded the Mount Polley dam breach was the result of inadequate engineering and poor oversight from regulators.

The senators’ letter notes that the departments of State, Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency set up a joint working group to determine what could be done to safeguard U.S. economic interests related to the commercial fisheries and tourism enterprises that could be compromised by the impacts from upstream mines.

Congress last year approved $1.8 million for Interior Department agencies to spend on improved downstream water quality monitoring systems in transboundary rivers.

“While we appreciate Canada’s engagement to date, we remain concerned about the lack of oversight of Canadian mining projects near multiple transboundary rivers that originate in B.C. and flow into our four U.S. states,” the senators wrote to Premier Horgan. “To address these concerns, we have taken steps in partnership with our federal and state governments to improve water quality monitoring and push for constructive engagement with Canada.

“In sharing an update on our efforts, we hope to encourage you, in your role as Premier, to allocate similar attention, engagement, and resources to collaborative management of our shared transboundary watersheds.”

Alaska Tribes and conservation groups insist a host of mines proposed in the Canadian portions of large salmon-bearing transboundary rivers that flow into Southeast Alaska, such as the Stikine and Unuk, could degrade water quality and endanger those fisheries. They also contend Canadian bonding requirements for mining companies are inadequate.

“This is a multi-state, international problem for which we need a multi-state, international solution,” United Fishermen of Alaska Executive Director Frances Leach wrote in a formal statement following the release of the senators’ letter. “Right now B.C.’s massive open-pit mines and waste dumps put some of Alaska and B.C.’s most important salmon rivers, and the fishing jobs that rely on them, at risk. Alaska fishermen and the thousands of people across the world who enjoy wild salmon expect and deserve better from B.C regulators.”

Former British Columbia Minister of Energy and Mines Bill Bennett said in a prior interview with the Journal that the provincial and federal Canadian governments have environmental protection requirements for mines on par with the U.S. and Alaskans’ concerns come from a lack of adequate communication between the governments on the issue.

Bennett is now a director for the British Columbia-based mining exploration firm Eagle Plains Resources Ltd.

The Alaska delegation specifically has asked provincial environmental regulators to provide State of Alaska officials, tribes and Alaska Native corporations a formal consultation process during mine permit reviews.

In November 2015 former Gov. Bill Walker and then British Columbia Premier Christy Clark signed a memorandum of understanding to create a transboundary Bilateral Working Group to facilitate the exchange of best practices, marine safety, workforce development, transportation links and joint visitor industry promotion.

Bennett said at the time that the MOU represented a significant change in how the state and province interact.

Last November British Columbia mine regulators began the process of seeking firms to clean up acid rock leakage from the Tulsequah Chief mine in the Taku River drainage east of Juneau. State officials contend the multi-metal mine that operated for just six years has been leaking acid wastewater into the Tulsequah River, which feeds the Taku, since it was closed in 1957.

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Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
06/20/2019 - 12:33pm

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