Over the weekend, the Western Mining Action Network held a panel discussion in Anchorage on the development of large scale mines in British Columbia that could impact the Taku, Stikine and Unuk rivers. All are prolific salmon producers for Alaska.
Chris Zimmer is the Alaska Rivers without Borders campaign director. He says there are a number of mines proposed for BC and two of the most concerning are the Tulsequah Chief mine and the much larger Kerr Suphurets Mitchell or KSM prospect which is half the size of the Pebble mine proposal and 50 times larger than Tulsequah.
Why are these mining proposals ramping up now?
Zimmer – Well part of it is the price of gold. When I started this work 15 years ago, gold was in the 300 to 400 an ounce and now with it well into the thousands, that’s really driving a lot of this. And you also have two big pushes from BC. One a very strong pro mining push from the BC government. Premiere Christy Clark said she wants to see eight or ten mines in eight or ten years. Then you also have over the last couple of years, both Canada at the federal level and BC at the provincial level have, I’d say significantly cut their permitting regulations, significantly weakened some environmental laws. So these mines are going through much faster, in the permitting reviews, they’re not being held to as rigorous a standard, so we really see this as a tremendous mining binge in the BC side of the Southeast Alaska/BC transboundary region here.
Describe what the concern is for Alaska.
Zimmer – The biggest issue is, we’re downstream from all of this. If the rivers flowed the other way, it would be quite different. So the concern is for our water quality, our fish and the jobs, the livelihoods, the cultures that depend on those. Basically what we have in the headwaters now is a toxic time bomb if these mines are built. You’re going to have millions to billions of tons of acid mine generating rock, constant water flow and in the case of KSM, the company says they’ll have to treat the water for 200 years when most people think they’ll have to treat it forever. So forever is a tough concept, who is going to pay for forever? Who is going to pay to clean this up? So Alaska is going to get no benefit from these mines, the benefits will all flow to Canada and we get nothing but the risk to our downstream fisheries.
This is a trans-nation border issue, waters flowing from BC into Alaska, U.S. waters, have you spoken to anyone from the congressional delegation about this?
Zimmer – Over the last couple of months, we’ve put together a loose coalition of almost all the stakeholders in these watersheds, from commercial fishermen to tribes to environmentalists and we did send a team back to Washington DC in March. The response there was excellent from federal agencies and from our congressional delegation. They saw the risk, they listened to everybody and the congressional delegation immediately fired off a letter to Secretary John Kerry, saying this is an international issue and we need the State Department to engage directly with the Canadian government, because this isn’t an Alaska/BC this is really the U.S. and Canada and the border creates some problems of jurisdiction, the mines are in another country so the only way we thought we could get some traction and get these issues addressed is to make this a federal government to federal government level. Secretary Kerry does have other things on his plate these days, so we haven’t gotten an answer back yet, but we’ve been working with lower level officials in the State Department to try to engage with Canada. So that type of diplomacy is slow, it’s painful, but its really the only way for Alaska to get satisfaction, to get it’s concerned addressed. Canada is probably going to dig its heels in a bit so this could be a tough battle here.