Alaska drafts transboundary mine agreement with BC

British Columbia Mines Minister Bill Bennett, left, and Alaska Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott talk at a dinner at Juneau’s Walter Soboleff Center in August. (Photo courtesy of the governor’s office)
British Columbia Mines Minister Bill Bennett, left, and Alaska Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott talk at a dinner at Juneau’s Walter Soboleff Center in August. (Photo courtesy of the governor’s office)

Alaska officials have drafted an agreement with British Columbia aimed at protecting transboundary waters. They say it will address concerns about pollution from mines on rivers that flow into Alaska. But critics say it may not make any difference, because it has no teeth.

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Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott presented what’s being called a “Statement of Cooperation” to the first meeting of his citizens’ advisory group on transboundary mining.

It details ways Alaska and British Columbia can protect watersheds from what it calls “the adverse impacts of development.” That includes mining, increased marine traffic and other activity.

The draft agreement proposes cooperative water quality monitoring, more input into mine permitting and a larger role for Alaska tribes and Canada’s First Nations.

Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Larry Hartig said it’s aimed at protecting the Alsek, Stikine, Taku and Unuk rivers.

“We’re looking at not just protecting the main Southeast watersheds from these particular mines,” he said.

“But, as far as we can see going forward, we want to put something in place that will be there today, tomorrow and through different administrations. We’re trying to build something here that’s going to protect the waters over the long haul.”

The advisory work group is made up of about 16 fishing, resource development, tribal and environmental advocates. Most who spoke applauded the effort and the administration’s focus on transboundary mining.

But Chris Zimmer, of the group Rivers Without Borders, says it has no real power.

“My worry is that how do make this document have the teeth where it actually does force B.C. to change things on the ground, that commitments made are actually honored,” he said.

But according to Mallott, that can’t happen in this kind of agreement.

“Any such working relationship between the state of Alaska and a foreign government, essentially, cannot be legally binding without it being a treaty – I’m not sure that that’s the word – that has to be ratified by both federal governments,” he said.

Mine critics say that could happen if the state takes the issue to the International Joint Commission, or IJC, a U.S.-Canada panel addressing cross-border water issues.

That would require a referral from the U.S. State Department, which has said it’s not interested.

But Heather Hardcastle of the group Salmon Beyond Borders said the state should still pursue the option. She said the IJC could address cumulative impacts of multiple mines.

“That is one thing of many that the IJC could look at. And if we don’t ask for Secretary Kerry to ask for the IJC to be involved, we certainly won’t get the IJC involved or the State Department involved right now,” she said.

The draft agreement with British Columbia makes no reference to the commission.

But Mallott said it’s not off the table. He said the draft is a step toward a document to present to the B.C. government. And the advisory board’s job is to suggest changes and additions.

He said many of its elements have already come up in talks with provincial officials during the past year.

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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.