Fishermen Debate Merits of Possible Southeast Mine

The Klehini River valley near the Palmer Project north of Haines. (Photo by John S. Hagen)
The Klehini River valley near the Palmer Project north of Haines. (Photo by John S. Hagen)

A Canadian company is exploring copper and zinc deposits at the Palmer Project site north of Haines. It’s not even a proposed project yet – but it’s is already dividing the community of Haines. One group having a hard time forming consensus on the issue is the commercial fishing fleet in the Northern Lynn Canal.

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Vancouver-based Constantine Metal Resources has found promising deposits at the Palmer site in the last few years and joined forces with a Japanese investing company.

The site is about 40 miles north of Haines, near the Canadian border and the Klehini River, which drains into the Chilkat River. The recent developments have people in Haines staking out positions on whether a future mining operation would benefit or hurt the community.

The Lynn Canal Gillnetters is an organized group that met recently in a closed meeting to discuss its position on the Palmer Project. It did not come to an agreement. Fisherman Norm Hughes was at the meeting.

“We were split down the fence like most issues in the Chilkat Valley, whether it’s fishermen talking about specific issues or it’s the community talking about issues. I’d like to hear more from the mine,” Hughes said.

Will Prisciandaro attend the meeting. He belongs to the Lynn Canal Gillnetters and is also the Haines representative on the board for United Southeast Alaska Gillnetters or USAG. He opposes having a mine near the Chilkat River because of potential effects on the watershed and salmon habitat. However, he thinks if the company keeps finding promising deposits, the mine will move ahead anyway. He says fishermen need to watch the project’s progression, even if it’s not yet in the permitting phase for a mining operation so that they don’t miss the opportunity to express their opposition and concerns.

“I don’t believe it’s too early to start talking about it,” Prisciandaro said. “There are not as many permits being applied for right now because it’s in the exploration phase, not a development or mining phase. But it’s definitely something we should keep an eye on.”

Bill Thomas is a long-time Haines fisherman and was also at the recent meeting. He’s less concerned about a potential mine at this stage of the process when there’s so few details about what that operation would look like.

“You know, Chicken Little is still alive,” Thomas said. “We can’t react to something we don’t know about.”

He says talk about acidic runoff or tailing damn breaches – like the recent Mount Polly disaster in British Columbia – aren’t relevant at this stage and only create fear. Alaska and U.S. environmental regulations are not like Canadian mining regulations, he says.

“People try to compare us with the Canadians,” Thomas said. “Wrong. Canadians are less stringent on their restrictions. We’re very strict.”

Prisciandaro says even if some fishermen support the development of a mine, he would think they would want to advocate for the protection and safety of the watershed and salmon for the area’s biggest source of income – commercial fishing. Haines has nearly 180 skippers and crew who commercial fish. The industry landed $11.5 million in seafood in Haines in 2012 and that meant about $326,000 in fish tax to the borough.

Prisciandaro says if the Palmer Project becomes a mining operation, he wants fishermen to have input in the design.

“We want to get them to consider the best interest of the fish and valley, to protect water quality and use best management practices to limit any impacts if the mine does go forward, Prisciandaro said.

Thomas, meanwhile says as resources extractor themselves, fishermen shouldn’t squeeze out other industries, especially one that promises local jobs.

“We don’t want to be labeled as against other people to extract what they think is right,” Thomas said. “We get to extract salmon and we sometimes over harvest and we don’t get criticized for it when they don’t meet their escapement goals. We have more impact on the resource than some resources extractors like logging or mining or what. So that’s why I’m just going to sit back and see what happens.”

The struggle to either welcome or oppose an incoming industry isn’t new for small communities, says Meredith Pochardt. She’s the executive director of the local Takshanuk Watershed Council. The council does not have a stance on the Palmer Project, but she says it’s a discussion that the entire community is going to have to have at some point, if the project keeps developing.

“As a community, whenever you’re looking at any development potential it doesn’t really matter what it is, it’s important to look at the social, economic and environmental impacts and both sides of that positive, negative, what it will actually means for the community to have this proposed development,” Pochardt. “And with fish it fits all three of those.”

Prisciandaro says if Lynn Canal Gillnetters is able to come to an agreement on a stance about the Palmer Project, USAG will also likely weigh in. The issue is on the agenda for discussion at the next USAG board meeting. Other state fishing organizations may also become involved, if the local fishing fleet takes a stand either way and asks for support as the project continues to move toward development.