Alaska’s fishing industry and lifestyle are under threat from mines on the B.C. side of the border and a non-binding cooperation agreement between B.C. and Alaska, signed last week, does not provide sufficient protection, the Alaska State House Fisheries Committee was told this week.
The committee held a public hearing because of persistent concerns from fishermen, business owners, municipal and Tribal leaders about the proliferation of B.C. mines near the headwaters of salmon-bearing rivers such as the Taku, Unuk and Stikine, which start in B.C. and flow through Southeast Alaska to the ocean.
About 10 mines are in the planning, exploration, construction or production stages in the area close to the border.
“I believe legislators received the message loud and clear that this is a very urgent situation and much, much more needs to be done immediately, beyond the B.C./Alaska Statement of Cooperation,” said Heather Hardcastle of Salmon Beyond Borders.
The agreement between B.C. and Alaska establishes a bilateral working group and provides for Alaska to have input into environmental assessments and permitting for mines. It also formalizes requirements for B.C. to notify Alaska if there is a spill or accident that could affect Alaskan waters.
But the agreement falls short as there are no enforceable measures to protect the water and fisheries and no requirement for bonds to provide financial compensation in case of an accident, speakers told the committee.
“Alaska should require some kind of compensation for catastrophic accidents,” said Dave Chambers, geophysicist and president of the Center for Science in Public Participation.
Mining companies are under pressure to increase production because of falling metal prices and rising costs and that is leading to an increasing number of tailings dam failures, Chambers said.
Requirements for a surety would put pressure on operators to do a better job, Chambers said.
Earlier this year, B.C. Auditor General Carol Bellringer, in a scathing report that criticized B.C.’s weak mining liability regime, estimated that there was a $1-billion shortfall in financial assurance policies, which are supposed to ensure mining companies pay for both catastrophic events and mine site reclamation.
Bellringer’s report was followed by an even more blistering assessment by economist Robyn Allan, who, in a report commissioned by the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, concluded there is more than $1.5-billion in unfunded liability.
“A regime to ensure mine owners have sufficient financial resources to pay for environmental damage and third-party losses from unintended mine accidents is non-existent,” Allan wrote.
A common theme at the Fisheries Committee hearing was a push for state leaders to formally request the involvement of the U.S. and Canadian federal governments.
“In order to have binding commitments that protect habitat, by encouraging the highest standards of environmental protection, elevation to the International Joint Commission through the Boundary Waters Treaty seems to be a necessary action,” said Chip Treinen, United Fishermen of Alaska board member.
So far, B.C.’s Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry have shown little interest in referring the issue to the International Joint Commission, the body established to deal with boundary water disputes.
Last week Bennett said that “We’ve proven with this agreement and all the work we’ve done over the last three years there’s no need for the International Joint Commission” and that neither B.C. nor Alaska want to get their respective federal governments involved in an issue they can manage themselves.
At the hearing, Hardcastle said Bennett is “flat-out wrong” in his assumptions.
“The State Legislature and the State of Alaska need to formally counter Bennett’s statement and be explicit with the U.S. federal government that this is an international matter in which the State of Alaska does want and need the critical involvement of the federal government,” she said.
Bennett and Energy and Mines Ministry spokespeople did not respond to questions Friday from DeSmog Canada.
Bev Sellars, chairwoman of First Nations Women Advocating Responsible Mining and Chief of the Xat’sull First Nation in Soda Creek, B.C., warned Alaska’s legislators not to put all their trust in the B.C. government, pointing to a bad track record, and urged them to ask the International Joint Commission to become involved.
“Try to get a solid country-to-country agreement on paper,” she said.
“I haven’t eaten fish from the Fraser River in years — that is a loss of our culture. When I hear about B.C. mines I worry about your culture too,” she said.
The spectre of the 2014 Mount Polley disaster, when the tailings dam collapsed spilling 24-million cubic metres of waste and sludge into nearby lakes and rivers, weighs heavily on Alaskans.
“We’re terrified that that’s what is going to happen here and that we’re going to share their fate,” said Richard Peterson, president of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska.
“We couldn’t sustain our traditional way of life. We couldn’t sustain our economic way of life if that happened.”
A recent study by the McDowell Group concluded that the Taku, Stikine and Unuk rivers account for U.S. $48-million in annual economic activity and the value of the three watersheds is just under $1-billion over a 30-year timeframe.
Chambers said he questions B.C.’s mine safety enforcement.
“Presently the B.C. government is not putting safety before economics as recommended by the Mount Polley Expert Panel, Chambers said.
“Moreover, B.C. is not implementing other key recommendations of the Mount Polley Expert Panel — a body appointed by the province to determine what went wrong at Mount Polley and how to avoid similar tailings dam failures in the future.”
The hearing was chaired by Rep. Louise Stutes, who said the committee is likely to hold more hearings to assess the possible effects of the mines.
In an interview with the Cordova Times, shortly before the public hearing, Stutes said: “The United States and Canadian federal governments need prodding to secure enforceable protections and financial assurances for our transboundary rivers.”
Image: Red Chris mine in Northwestern B.C. Photo: Daniel Henshaw, B.C. Government