Canada Approves Controversial Mine Plan in Southeast

A controversial mine near Southeast Alaska’s border has won approval from Canada’s federal government. That worries critics, who say the development could pollute salmon-bearing rivers.

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Seabridge Gold’s Brent Murphy points to a valley to be dammed to hold tailings from the KSM mine during a July tour. The project just won Canada’s federal environmental approval. Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News.

The Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell project’s environmental protection plan got the OK from Canada’s Ministry of the Environment.

The project, known as the KSM, is in northwest British Columbia, northeast of Ketchikan and east of Wrangell.

Brent Murphy, of mine owner Seabridge Gold, says the federal action is an important step.

“It means that the project can proceed. We’ve received both the provincial and federal Canadian governments’ approvals. Essentially, it’s an approval in principle and now we move forward in the permitting phase,” he says.

He says the project has about 100 of the 150 permits it needs. It’s also seeking investors to develop the proposed $5.3 billion mine.

The KSM is a copper, gold and silver deposit upstream of two rivers that enter the ocean within about 50 miles of Ketchikan.

Fisheries, tribal, municipal and environmental groups in Southeast Alaska oppose development, saying the mine would pollute those rivers and harm salmon and those who eat them.

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The KSM project’s mine site layout during the operation phase, from its environmental assessment certificate application. Image courtesy Seabridge Gold.

Canada’s action disturbs Carrie James, who co-chairs Southeast’s United Tribal Transboundary Mining Working Group.

“I’m just really disappointed in the decision. It doesn’t surprise me. And we’re not going to stop. We’ll keep fighting and we can’t stop,” she says.

Opponents are asking the Obama administration to pressure Canada to use more stringent permitting standards. They’re also pressing British Columbia to give the project a higher level of review.

Right now, the KSM is an isolated work camp near exploratory drilling sites.

Murphy of Seabridge Gold says construction won’t start until it gets more permits and substantial financial backing.

“The next big regulatory challenge will be the (B.C.) Mines Act permit for the mine site. That’s a permit that … we require in order to start construction of our water storage dam and all the associated water-management structures,” he says.

The next big step would be a permit for its tailings storage facility, including dams to hold back rock leftover from processing ore.

Those dams are a key area of concern for opponents in Alaska.

James, of the tribal working group, points to August’s massive tailings-dam break at Mount Polley, in central British Columbia.

“It’s been called one of Canada’s worst environmental disasters. The Mount Polley failure was a wake-up call for us. We can’t let Alaska waters be polluted by B.C. mine waste,” she says.

Seabridge Gold says its tailings dams will use a different structure than Mount Polley’s. Critics say they’re still worried about breaks spilling toxic metals and water.

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Ed Schoenfeld is Regional News Director for CoastAlaska, a consortium of public radio stations in Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka, Petersburg and Wrangell. He primarily covers Southeast Alaska regional topics, including the state ferry system, transboundary mining, the Tongass National Forest and Native corporations and issues. He has also worked as a manager, editor and reporter for the Juneau Empire newspaper and Juneau public radio station KTOO. He’s also reported for commercial station KINY in Juneau and public stations KPFA in Berkley, WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and WUHY in Philadelphia. He’s lived in Alaska since 1979 and is a contributor to Alaska Public Radio Network newscasts, the Northwest (Public Radio) News Network and National Native News. He is a board member of the Alaska Press Club. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, he lives in Douglas.