Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott sent the second draft of a Statement of Cooperation to British Columbia officials last week as part of an ongoing effort to preserve water quality and fisheries of the Stikine, Taku, Unuk and Alsek rivers.
Mallott said although the Statement of Cooperation is legally non-binding, it will build agreements and understanding between Alaska and B.C. to ensure water quality in transboundary rivers is maintained.
“So long as there is a permit process underway in B.C. that could affect the water quality or the environmental integrity of any of the river systems covered by the Boundary Waters Treaty, the State of Alaska has an obligation to be fully engaged with B.C. to protect our interests,” Mallott said. “And that is the bottom line.”
The agreement would create a working group including the commissioners of the Departments of Fish and Game, Environmental Conservation and Natural Resources, as well as the British Columbian deputy ministers of the Environment, and Energy and Mines. It describes public participation in the assessment and permitting of new mines, and information sharing between the state, the province and the public.
After consulting with a citizens’ advisory group on transboundary mining, Mallott incorporated comments from stakeholders into the agreement.
“I think the biggest improvement is the fact that the draft Statement of Cooperation really recognizes that the SOC itself can only do so much, and that the Boundary Waters Treaty and its associated International Joint Commission (IJC) may very well be a necessary next step,” said Chris Zimmer of Rivers Without Borders.
He said the statement of cooperation can be valuable, but only if it is combined with the IJC.
The Boundary Waters Treaty and its International Joint Commission address cross-border water issues between Canada and the U.S.
Zimmer said the IJC is probably the only path to a binding, enforceable agreement.
“While we would’ve liked to see stronger support outright for an IJC there and have the state directly request that of the State Department, I still think what we’re seeing in the SOC is probably the strongest statement of support for the IJC we’ve seen from the state,” Zimmer said.
The first draft of the agreement did not mention the International Joint Commission. The second draft states that by entering the Statement of Cooperation, Alaska and British Columbia are not precluded from seeking a referral to the International Joint Commission.
Mallott said he is fully engaged with the IJC issue, and he does not think it will affect the pending agreement with B.C. at this time.
“I’ve had conversations with the State Department, with the Canadian government, and with the U.S. IJC secretary,” Mallott said. “We are in the process of finalizing a letter to the State Department which will ask a series of questions about the IJC, and what the IJC may or may not do. What might be issues that our federal government might choose to take to the IJC, if any?”
Fred Olsen of the United Tribal Transboundary Mining Work Group said getting the federal governments of both countries involved is especially important for Native tribes in the area. He emphasized that it is an international issue.
“The U.S. government has fiduciary trust responsibility for the tribes. And without the federal government involved, we’re kind of left out. The tribes are on the outside looking in,” Olsen said. “This Statement of Cooperation talks about enhanced participation by tribes, and I’m not sure what that means.”
Some mine critics are called for a formal public comment and hearing process as part of developing the Statement of Cooperation.
Mallott said public participation will continue to be carried out informally, but he wants to engage with all stakeholders.
“We would hope that all of the various interests themselves form and build relationships in whatever way that they deem necessary,” Mallot said. “And we will be responsive to pretty much anything that’s put before us, and we ourselves will be constantly reaching out and being open and transparent.”
Mallott said B.C. will probably take a few months to review the new draft Statement of Cooperation.