This story has been updated with clarification and a comment from Seabridge Gold Inc. Vice President of Environmental Affairs R. Brent Murphy.
Gov. Bill Walker and British Columbia Premier Christy Clark signed a Memorandum of Understanding Wednesday morning committing to cooperation on transboundary issues, particularly related to concerns in Southeast over mines on the Canadian side of the border.
The MOU will create a Bilateral Working Group on the Protection of Transboundary Waters that will facilitate the exchange of best practices, marine safety, workforce development, transportation links and joint visitor industry promotion. It will also explore other areas for cooperation such as natural resource development, fisheries, trade and investment and climate change adaptation.
The neighboring U.S. state and Canadian province will work together on water quality monitoring, scientific information exchanges, resource sharing and facilitating access to information and soliciting input from First Nations, Alaska Native Tribes, and other stakeholders.
Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott will lead the Alaska side of the working group and the Minister of Environment and Minister of Energy and Mines will lead the BC side.
“As our next door neighbor, Canada plays a significant role in many Alaska industries, including trade, transportation, and tourism,” Walker said. “This MOU underscores that connection, and I thank British Columbia Premier Clark for her support and cooperation in advancing this important relationship
“As we work to improve our state’s economy, it is important that we actively reach out and foster good relationships with our trading partners and neighbors with whom we share so much in common.”
In an interview with the Journal, British Columbia Minister of Energy and Mines Bill Bennett said the MOU signifies a “change in how we do business” between Alaska and BC.
“How we were doing business was the state and province cooperated on mine approvals and permitting that takes place in British Columbia that has potential to impact Alaska,” he said. “But there wasn’t very much public awareness of that relationship and it was incredibly difficult for Tribes and conservation groups and fishing groups to get information on our processes.
“We realized that was a shortcoming of our approach and Alaska realized they needed to communicate more with Alaskans on the opportunities the state has to be involved in our process. It’s a matter of opening our doors to acquiring information and making it easier. We’re adding to the opportunities for them to be involved.
“This is sealing the deal by having the two leaders sign a deal that says ‘we’re going to do a better job on issues between the jurisdictions.’”
There was initially some confusion among the Southeast stakeholders who have been pushing for action on transboundary issues. They had been presented the draft of a statement of cooperation on Nov. 16 by Mallott and told they had two weeks to provide comments to the state.
After the announcement, Salmon Beyond Borders, a coalition of Southeast stakeholders representing Tribes, fishing and conservation groups, released statements blasting the timing of the signing and the nonbinding nature of the agreement.
A spokesperson from the governor’s office clarified to the Journal that the MOU signed Wednesday was not the one presented to the stakeholders for comment Nov. 16, and that the comment period has been extended to Dec. 11.
The MOU signed Wednesday is the “umbrella agreement,” Bennett said, which creates the working group that will facilitate the access and cooperation between the two jurisdictions.
Southeast stakeholders have repeatedly called for the involvement of the International Joint Commission, which regulates disputes under the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909.
“Since day one, the fishing industry has called on the state and Congress to secure legally binding agreements between the U.S. and Canada with substantial habitat protection and mitigation requirements to ensure the state’s interests are protected,” said Dale Kelley, Executive Director of the Alaska Trollers Association, in the Salmon Beyond Borders press release. “Alaska has instead signed non-binding agreements with British Columbia that offer no visible means of holding Canada, or the mining companies, accountable for mitigating our losses should accidents like the one at Mt. Polley occur in the region.”
Kelley was referring to the Mount Polley mine tailings disaster on Aug. 4, 2014, that spilled millions of gallons of mine waste into the Cariboo region of British Columbia, polluting several lakes and watersheds.
Concerns over mine waste polluting Alaska watersheds have been elevated by several proposed cross-border mines, particularly the proposed KSM mine near the Unuk River watershed that will also require a large tailings dam structure; there is also ongoing acid rock drainage flowing into a tributary of the Taku River from the abandoned Talsequah Chief Mine.
From R. Brent Murphy, Seabridge: “Seabridge wants to clarify that our proposed TMF (tailings mine facility) associated with the KSM Project is not situated in the Unuk watershed or a watershed that drains into Alaska, contrary to the assertions of those who are the most vocal with regards to transboundary development. Our TMF will be situated within the Nass watershed, a watershed that drains entirely into Canadian waters.
"We also want to highlight that the water quality within the Unuk River is currently being impacted by naturally occurring acid rock drainage originating from the exposure of the Mitchell Deposit within the head waters of Mitchell Creek (which is a tributary of the Unuk River). This naturally occurring acid rock drainage results in naturally elevated concentrations of many metals within the river, including copper, iron and zinc. These elevated concentrations have been identified during our extensive baseline sampling of the Upper Unuk River and associated watersheds, which has been ongoing since 2008.”
After Bennett visited the Talsequah site in August, government agencies issued a letter to the owners of the mine Nov. 10 that they have 90 days to come up with a plan to stop the acid rock drainage.
Although the drainage has been ongoing for years, tests by several government agencies have found that fish in the Tulsequah River are not being affected by the discharge.
Regarding the Tulsequah mine, Bennett said the company has told the province it will have a plan to improve the site but that it will stop short of reopening the water treatment plant because the small exploration company doesn’t have the financing.
“We think we have some opportunities here to have the company improve the site,” he said. “The best thing would be to develop the site, create cash flow for the company that can open the treatment plant, operate the mine, then close the site, remediate the site, and stop the leaching. That would all be paid for by company as opposed to the public.
“That’s what BC has been trying to see happen for 20 years.”
He said the fact no harmful effects have been measured by agencies on either side of the border affects how the province is approaching the mine, but that could change if damage was being done.
“If the scientists in Alaska and British Columbia were saying that the drainage was harming the water, harming the fish, we’d obviously have a different reaction,” he said. “I think we should do more study, more monitoring, to make sure about the impacts.
“If it was determined that there is a negative impact, I think BC would have to take more dramatic action and we’d be responsible for that site. The government would probably have to take it over. I don’t see it happening any time soon, but I acknowledge that it’s a possibility in the future.”
Bennett also said there is a “fundamental misunderstanding” of what role the International Joint Commission, or IJC, could play on Alaska-BC transboundary issues. As sub-national jurisdictions, Alaska and BC cannot sign legally binding documents, and the IJC could only get involved if both the U.S. and Canada agreed to it, and if there was a complete breakdown in communications between the nations.
He noted that there is a “tremendous amount of pressure on both jurisdictions” related to preserving watersheds from mining impacts and the signing of the MOU is a strong public commitment to working together.
“It’s there for the world to see,” he said. “It’s shortsighted to say it won’t impact BC or Alaska.”
Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]