British Columbia’s environmental review process simply isn’t strong enough to protect Alaskan communities and rivers from the province’s mining boom, Jill Weitz, American campaigner with Salmon Beyond Borders, recently told a panel reviewing Canada’s environmental assessment process.
Weitz, who works to protect Alaska’s wild salmon runs, traveled to Prince Rupert to tell a trio of experts appointed by the federal government how a more robust federal environmental assessment process could help address transboundary concerns arising in the wake of B.C.’s major push for new mines.
The federally appointed panel is currently reviewing the environmental assessment process managed by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency which is responsible for reviewing major development projects including pipelines, oil and gas development and mines. Changes made under the previous federal government excluded major mines in British Columbia from the federal environmental assessment process — a legislative change Weitz and others say left Alaska in an uncomfortable position.
The transboundary region traversing the border of northwest B.C. and southeast Alaska is home to three major salmon rivers, the Taku, Stikine and Unuk. The rivers flow into Alaska from an area in B.C. that is home to 10 new mines either proposed or already under construction.
Weitz said one of those mines, the controversial KSM mine, is the largest open pit mine in North America.
Despite living directly downstream from the mine, Alaskans were frustratingly prevented from meaningful participation in the project's environmental review, Weitz told DeSmog Canada.
“The project would be located 22 miles upstream from the Alaska border,” she said. “The environmental assessment process determined there would be no significant environmental impacts.”
Weitz said this assessment was made despite the fact that the term ‘environmental impacts’ was not precisely defined and there was a problematic lack of the basic information needed to measure those impacts going forward.
“Not only is the B.C. process flawed in terms of identifying whether KSM would have significant environmental impacts but the baseline data needed to say that — it doesn’t exist.”
Weitz said Salmon Beyond Borders began campaigning on the issues of transboundary watersheds and the KSM mine after Alaskans from many different backgrounds start voicing their concern about the project.
A 2014 tailings pond collapse at the Mount Polley mine raised serious concerns about B.C.’s mine management and permitting process.
Many Alaskans representing fishing, tourism and indigenous groups voiced fears that something similar to the Mount Polley disaster, which left the pristine Quesnel Lake watershed contaminated with 24 million cubic metres of mining waste, could happen in U.S. waters.
The KSM tailings pond is projected to entail a massive 239-metre tailings dam, perched above the Bell Irving/Nass watershed in B.C. near the Sulpherets Creek, which runs into the Unuk River.
“We continue to push on the notion that there needs to be further transboundary watershed management in a shared way,” Weitz said.
In her presentation to the environmental assessment review panel, Weitz made the case that legislative changes made under the former Harper government that narrowed the purview of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act increased the threat felt by southeast Alaskans.
Projects that have immediate implications for transboundary watersheds should automatically trigger federal environmental assessments, Weitz argued, saying the provincial process in B.C. is not comprehensive enough and does not consider cumulative impacts of industrialization in the region — a top concern for many scientists and conservation groups.
Weitz said although B.C. invited the participation of Alaskans in the KSM mine assessment, she felt like their input was ultimately ignored.
Provincial approval of the KSM mine in 2014 angered many Alaskans. Fifteen federally registered native tribes, as well as a number of non-governmental organizations, made formal requests for a joint provincial-federal review of the project’s approval.
That request was denied.
“There is no equity in this process,” Weitz said.
Nikki Skuce, who also presented to the panel on behalf of the Northern Confluence initiative out of Smithers, B.C., said even British Columbians feel the provincial review system is inadequate.
“Some of us here in the northwest have participated in some really faulty review processes,” Skuce told DeSmog Canada.
“In some cases it’s clear the decision on the project is made even before the process begins so these processes feel very tokenistic and often rely entirely on information from industry.”
Skuce said a serious review of Canada’s environmental assessment process should take into consideration how domestic projects can affect cross-border communities.
“For folks in southeast Alaska, if we’re going to consider impacting a water or airshed upstream, there should be a federal review where there is greater opportunity for those downstream or down-air communities.”
Skuce said Canada’s federal review process should honour international commitments, like Canada’s pledge to engage in a bilateral process to manage transboundary waters.
Skuce says improvements to the federal environmental assessment process could help restore public trust in the review system.
“This process should prioritize indigenous rights that Canada has promised to honour under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” Skuce said.
She added an emphasis on independent science is key to restoring trust in the process.
“We need to delineate the project proponent promoter from the project regulator,” she said.
Skuce said she is feeling optimistic about the review of the federal environmental assessment process. The panel has worked hard to engage meaningfully with presenters, she said.
“With so many mining projects proposed in the northwest and given the potential transboundary impacts we need federal engagement,” she said.
“This is a good opportunity to look in-depth at cumulative impacts of development and at our bilateral agreement obligations with Alaska.”
Image: Taku River Landing. Photo: Heather Holt via Salmon Beyond Borders