Mine Field : The trout- and salmon-rich rivers of southeast Alaska face a new danger
that few Americans have heard about.
- By: Ted Williams
- Photography by: Chris Miller
IF YOU THOUGHT THE PROPOSED Pebble Mine in the Bristol Bay area was the most rash and reckless development scheme ever to threaten Alaska’s fish and wildlife, you’d have been wrong. Five enormous hard-rock mines are proposed for the Stikine, Taku and Unuk river systems, southeast Alaska’s main producers of Pacific salmon (all species) and trout (resident and sea-run rainbows, coastal cutthroats, dollies and bulls). Gold, silver, copper and molybdenum would be extracted by acid- and heavy-metal-generating mining. Most of these mines would need monitoring and water treatment basically forever.
There’s the Galore Creek, Red Chris and Schaft Creek open-pit mines, planned for tributaries of the Stikine River; the Tulsequah Chief underground mine, on a tributary of the Taku River (in most years southeast Alaska’s biggest salmon producer); and the Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell (KSM) combined open-pit and underground mine, on the headwaters of the Unuk River. This last one would be roughly the size of Pebble. It would leach out gold with cyanide, destroy three mountains, fill a valley with 1.62 billion tons of toxic tailings held between two Hoover-size dams and generate 118,000 gallons of wastewater a minute. The mine site and the tailings area would be connected by twin 14-mile tunnels, with at least six of the miles beneath glaciers.
Except for Tulsequah Chief, the proposed mines are to be powered by BC Hydro’s federally subsidized, $736 million, 215-mile-long Northwest Transmission Line.
All five mines are in seismically active areas. Rob Sanderson, second vice president of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, co-chairs the United Tribal Transboundary Work Group, which is desperately trying to get safeguards imposed. “If the KSM tailing dams fail, southeast Alaska and its thousands of rivers and islands will be turned into a dead zone,” he told me on July 25, 2014. That happened to be the day a powerful 5.9-magnitude earthquake shook the Alaska coast west of Juneau.
If you are like most anglers I’ve spoken with, you have heard about these threats only in passing, or not at all.
That would be because the mines are to be constructed just across the border in British Columbia, and the watersheds are remote and sparsely populated even by Alaska standards. Governor Sean Parnell, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the Alaska Department of Natural Resources appear singularly unconcerned. And while BC is not without effective environmental organizations, such as Skeena Wild Conservation Trust, Friends of Wild Salmon, Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition and Forest Ethics, they’re focused on the southern part of the province currently being laced with pipelines to transport tar-sands oil.
When it comes to environmental review and water-quality standards, Canada is about where the US was at mid-20th Century. So insipid is the country’s version of our National Environmental Policy Act that on July 21, 2014, with scant baseline data, the overseeing Canadian agencies recommended that the federal government approve the KSM mine.
Canada did have a strong Fisheries Act, which prohibited “harmful alteration, disruption or destruction of fish habitat.” But Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who scolds Americans because he says they “would like to see Canada be one giant national park,” found it inconvenient. So, to facilitate strip-mining of metals and tar sands, his administration led a successful campaign to do away with the habitat provision, restricting protection to fish themselves, provided they’re used by humans and the harm done to them by human development is deemed “serious” (whatever that means to Canadian bureaucrats). The 2012 emasculation of the law removes protection for 80 percent of the nation’s 71 imperiled freshwater fish species.
Meanwhile, Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans, which enforces the Fisheries Act, is being bled to death. Recent budget cuts have reduced its BC habitat staff by 50 percent. Environment Canada’s program for monitoring effluent from mines and other development has been cut by 20 percent.
Also in 2012, pushed by the Harper administration, parliament gutted the Navigable Waters Protection Act and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act. The new version of the latter law sharply limits public input and rushes environmental review so that thousands of dangerous projects that would have been nixed will now be permitted.
BC emasculated its own Environmental Assessment Act 12 years ago. In July 2011 its auditor general reported that the province “cannot assure British Columbians that mitigation efforts are having the intended effects because adequate monitoring is not occurring and follow-up evaluations are not being conducted. We also found that information currently being provided to the public is not sufficient to ensure accountability.”
As member of Parliament Fin Donnelly told his House of Commons colleagues: “The conservative government is systematically dismantling environmental protection and regulation. By eliminating provisions to protect fish habitat, they can push through their agenda of pipelines, oil supertankers, mega-mines and other projects that harm the environment.”
And yet Canada is in desperate need of provisions that protect fish habitat, as its abominable record of containing mine waste illustrates. That record deteriorated still further on August 4, 2014 when the tailings dam at Imperial Metals’ Mount Polley open-pit copper and gold mine in Central BC failed, disgorging 1.3 billion gallons of poison-laced slurry into Hazeltine Creek and Polley and Quesnel lakes.
THERE IS NO BETTER EXAMPLE of how pollution mitigation works in BC than the fiasco at the Tulsequah Chief Mine, which was abandoned in the 1950s and is now proposed for re-opening and major expansion. Canada has routinely told the US that it will stop the mine’s ongoing acid pollution via the permitting process. Here’s how well that process works: For about 60 years now Tulsequah Chief has been belching sulfuric acid, arsenic and other toxic heavy metals into the Taku River system. So bad was the pollution that it even offended Sarah Palin who, in her capacity as Alaska’s governor, fired off a July 1, 2009 letter to BC’s then-premier Gordon Campbell, demanding prompt abatement “in order to protect downstream water quality and assure the continued health of the valuable Taku River fisheries.”
Tulsequah Chief’s current owner, Chieftain Metals, was ordered by the British Columbia Ministry of Environment to construct a wastewater treatment plant. The plant operated from December 2011 to June 2012, when the company shut it down, claiming it was too expensive to run. Apparently, that’s fine with the province. There has been no discipline or threat of discipline.
If BC can’t clean up old mine drainages, how can it possibly deal with the kind of acid and heavy metal contamination that would spew from the far larger KSM mine? No treatment plant has ever been built that can do anything close to that. So Seabridge Gold, the company that hopes to develop KSM, has come up with a solution called “adaptive management.” Translation: We don’t know how to do it, but we’ll figure it out as we go.
“What does it mean to manage a mine and its toxic tailings dumps forever?” inquires Chris Zimmer, of Rivers Without Borders, an international organization operating in southeast Alaska, central and southern British Columbia, and northwest Washington. “Who’s going to be around to take care of this massive toxic time bomb above the Unuk River that will be there for thousands and thousands of years? BC’s just doing this unrestricted mining boom willy-nilly without any safeguards. It has ignored about every concern we’ve put on the table. There is no requirement in the permitting processes for the Canadian or BC governments to accommodate Alaskan concerns. They can listen but they don’t have to do anything.”
Environment Canada seems not even to have listened, concluding that the KSM project “is not likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects” and that “the agency is satisfied that [untested, never-attempted] mitigation measures for the project would address potential impacts in Alaska on fish, recreational and commercial fisheries and human health from changes to water quality and quantity in the Unuk River.”
Scientists on both sides of the border are less easily satisfied, having ample reason to predict horrendous impacts. In a 2006 study of hard-rock mines from which no water-quality exceedances (instances in which a pollutant exceeds an allowable amount) were predicted, 91 percent were found to pollute surface waters. Of the mines that predicted low exceedances but imposed mitigation, 73 percent polluted surface waters.
At this writing it doesn’t appear that scientists will have a way of determining how current water quality and fish and wildlife productivity will compare with what comes after development. That’s because both state and province have thus far declined to fund adequate baseline monitoring or broad cumulative-effects analyses.
The lack of such data is one of the reasons 36 Canadian and US scientists issued this warning to BC’s premier, Christy Clark: “The scale and intensity of proposed development certainly will fragment the watersheds with roads, transmission lines, river diversion projects, and open-pit mines. Habitat for salmon and other wildlife will be destroyed at the development sites. Cumulative impacts likely will cascade throughout the watersheds in the form of altered flow and temperature patterns, disturbance to wildlife interacting with roads, and reduced water quality associated with sedimentation and acid mine drainage.”
When I asked Zimmer to explain the ho-hum attitude of Alaska’s departments of Natural Resources, and Fish and Game, he responded as follows: “They seem very happy with the Canadian review process, despite the example of the Tulsequah Chief. Alaskans have nothing to gain and will bear many of the risks of KSM, but our state is not stepping up to the plate. The DNR submitted about a page and a half of comments on KSM, a mine that rivals the size of Pebble. To me that level of involvement is shocking. Fish and Game’s habitat division is supposed to ensure strong habitat-protection measures in the permits, but it’s not doing its job. It’s a permit factory. Governor Parnell [a tireless Pebble promoter] has muzzled a lot of staff. He has made it clear that their job is to issue permits in a timely fashion, and not let habitat issues gum up the works.”
And Zimmer points out that the casual engagement of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources on KSM has been paid for by the prospective developer, Seabridge Gold—a gross conflict of interest.
If all this seems so depressing and hopeless that you’re tempted to put it out of your mind and go fishing or drinking, keep reading.
WHILE BC’S AND CANADA’S governments don’t need to do anything about most American concerns, the same cannot be said about the concerns of First Nations. In June 2014 Canada’s Supreme Court ruled on a decades-old suit brought by BC’s Tsilhqot’in Nation, granting it the right to be consulted on industrial development affecting its land and water. This doesn’t quite give First Nations veto power over, say, a proposed mine, but the language of the decision makes it clear that any effort by a company or province to infringe on title rights would be extremely difficult to defend in court.
Meanwhile, the BC Supreme Court has ruled that the province breached its legal obligation to consult the Taku River Tlingit on the Tulsequah Chief Mine. So the Ministry of Environment must now reconsider its decision to make permanent its permit. Outcry from the Tlingit and the public in Alaska and BC sent the previous owner, Redfern Resources, into bankruptcy in 2009 by inducing investors to jump ship. Now Chieftain is flirting with bankruptcy for the same reason.
Is Tulsequah Chief dead? Well, probably only moribund—but very moribund.
One reason the Taku River Tlingit have prevailed in court is because the University of Montana’s Flathead Lake Biological Station and partners spent three years collecting salmon data on the Taku above and below the border. “The Tlingit didn’t want their hunting grounds disturbed,” says station research scientist Tom Bansak. “So Redfern proposed to use a hover barge that would carry ore down the river to the ocean and then around the bend to Juneau. We showed there was no way they were going to do that and not degrade extensive salmon rearing and spawning habitat. We turned all that data over to the Tlingit; and they used it to help stop Redfern. BC rubber-stamps every mining proposal that comes along, but First Nations hold the cards.”
Of course not all of BC’s First Nations oppose the mines. Some are starry-eyed about perceived employment opportunities. Abe Tanha, owner of Hooked on Juneau—a guide service for shore-based fly and spin fishermen—told me this: “I’ve talked to several of the elders on the other side of the border who really want these mines. But when we brought them here they said, ‘We do have a responsibility to take care of the headwaters. We owe it to our brothers and sisters in Juneau and to ourselves.’ I think we’ve made a lot of progress on that front. As Americans we don’t have a lot of pull with the province, but what we can do is reach out to the native communities. They can affect policy in BC. That has been our big move.”
With First Nations help, Americans may be able to stop some of the mines. At worst they can make them significantly less damaging. One of their options is the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty, which established the International Joint Commission to facilitate transboundary water disputes. The treaty is unwieldy and its implementation time consuming. But it works. In the late 1970s and for most of the 1980s a proposed coal mine on the Canadian side of the Flathead River threatened the imperiled bull trout that migrate between BC and Montana. In 1988 the commission found that bull-trout spawning habitat was in jeopardy and recommended that the mine not be approved until risks could be prevented or fully mitigated. So far, the mine has not been built.
In Canada there are three levels of environmental review—“screening,” “comprehensive” and “panel,” the last being the most rigorous. “We’re trying to get the mine assessment for KSM elevated from comprehensive to panel,” says Brian Lynch, a former Alaska Fish and Game biologist who now directs a commercial fishing support group called the Petersburg Vessel Owners Association. “The commercial fishing industry in southeast Alaska has been going on for 100 years. It’s sustainable. We’re not anti-mining, but these are open-pit mines which produce sulfuric acid; and we want protection.”
The fact that BC’s proposed orgy of mine development will benefit no Alaskan has an upside in that it has forged an alliance among all interests, many of whom had been at war over Pebble. Even Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski and Congressman Don Young have joined environmentally enlightened Alaska Senator Mark Begich in demanding safeguards. On April 2, 2014 the delegation sent a letter to John Kerry requesting US State Department intervention. “This is a very unique situation to have all these stakeholders united on this,” says Lynch. “It’s something you may never see again.”
This united front has the shorts of the Mining Association of British Columbia in a knot. Lamenting “systematic attacks” by greenies, it is attempting to hatch its own version of Big Oil’s Orwellian-named “Ethical Oil” ad campaign. In an apparent bid to get hired for this effort, a communications firm called PR Associates organized an industry pow-pow in May, whipping up paranoia with this warning: “Several Alaskan and BC-based NGOs are using US governmental lobbying and grassroots campaigns in an attempt to stop industrial development in the transboundary region . . . . Research shows that the movement, which is relying on inaccurate and misleading public messaging, is gaining momentum.”
Zimmer sees an important lesson in the current travails of Chieftain Metals. “I’m not sure Tulsequah Chief will ever completely die,” he says. “But its current predicament shows that if you can scare away the money from these kinds of projects, at least a few decades will go by before someone takes another look at them. Chieftain hasn’t been able to get the necessary funds or what we call the ‘social license.’ So Americans shouldn’t feel powerless. The precedent there is the need for strong public outcry from Alaskans, First Nations and our allies in BC. That can put the brakes on at some of these mine proposals or at the very least build in stronger safeguards. The message to the public is this: ‘If you stand up and yell, we can get Canada’s attention.’ Our success at Tulsequah Chief has been because we’ve convinced the investors not to go near it. It’s too controversial and too difficult.”
When I wrote about the Pebble Mine eight years ago (See “Pits in the Crown Jewels,” April 2006) the project seemed unstoppable. Readers of our magazine, me included, felt a sense of hopelessness.
Now recall that when you started reading I referred to Pebble in the past tense. Maybe that’s premature, but not by much. As in the case of Tulsequah Chief, investors have been jumping ship. Even before July 18, 2014 Pebble was listing heavily. But on that date it took a devastating broadside when the EPA exercised its authority under the Clean Water Act to propose severe restrictions on “the use of certain waters in the Bristol Bay watershed for disposal of dredged or fill material associated with mining the Pebble deposit.” It’s almost inconceivable that the agency will back off, especially considering that 98 percent of the 204,000 public comments it had previously received supported protection for Bristol Bay. The sense of hopelessness has shifted to Pebble promoters.
Capturing perfectly the mood of the American public is gifted environmental journalist Susan Cosier, who wrote this in the July 18, 2014 OnEarth Magazine: “Pebble, nobody likes you! So hey, Pebble Mine, listen up: you’re not welcome here. Government regulators are not going to roll over for you. And your own investors are fair-weather friends. Take the hint and just go away.”
Pebble may not be quite dead. But it’s swimming on its back with pectoral fins flapping in the air. Let’s remember that in the by-no-means-hopeless fight to protect Alaska from slap-dash mine development in British Columbia.
What You Can Do
“Contact your legislators,” says Tim Bristol, director of Trout Unlimited’s Alaska office. “If the State Department hears from enough of them, the issue might get elevated.”
Support Trout Unlimited and Rivers Without Borders. Together they have formed Salmon Beyond Borders. To join the campaign for mine cancellations and safeguards, to keep abreast of the latest developments and to get information on how to write comment letters go to www.salmonbeyondbor ders.org
Ted Williams is Fly Rod & Reel’s longtime Conservation editor.
Photograph by Chris Miller/CSMPhotos.com : Acid drainage from the Tulsequah Chief mine discolors a leaking containment pond next to the Tulsequah River, in British Columbia.