Fisheries panel hears transboundary mine concerns

Those testifying at a legislative hearing Wednesday said the 2014 Mount Polley Mine tailings dam break is an example of what could happen to Southeast rivers. (Photo courtesy B.C. Ministry of Mines)
Those testifying at a legislative hearing Wednesday said the 2014 Mount Polley Mine tailings dam break is an example of what could happen to Southeast rivers. (Photo courtesy B.C. Ministry of Mines)

Critics of British Columbia mining told a legislative committee Wednesday about the dangers of mineral extraction along transboundary rivers.

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Tribal leaders, scientists, fishermen and community members warned House Fisheries Committee members of the consequences of a cross-border mining disaster during the public hearing.

The focus was on the Taku, Unuk and Stikine Rivers, which begin in British Columbia and flow through Southeast Alaska to the ocean.

Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska President Richard Peterson. (Photo courtesy CCTHITA)
Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska President Richard Peterson. (Photo courtesy CCTHITA)

One speaker was Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska President Richard Peterson of Juneau. He pointed to 2014’s Mount Polley Mine disaster, when a damn holding back silty, polluted water broke and spilled millions of gallons into nearby waterways.

“We’re terrified that that’s what’s going to happen here. And they we’re going to share their fate. We couldn’t sustain our traditional way of life. We couldn’t sustain our economic way of life, if that happened,” he said.

The B.C. government and the mine owner have said the Mount Polley spill caused no long-term damage.

But United Tribal Transboundary Mining Work Group Chairman Frederick Olsen Jr. of Kasaan said the impacts have been underplayed.

“When you call something a tailings storage facility, you treat it a lot differently than you would treat a lake of poison that’s held back by sand. But that is what we have. Mount Polley had a lake of poison held back by sand. And it was supposed to last forever. But it lasted fewer than 20 years,” Olsen said.

The fisheries committee heard from several scientists who addressed the frequency and impacts of mine spills.

One was Center for Science in Public Participation Founder Dave Chambers. He said his research shows falling metals prices and rising costs putting a lot of pressure on mines to boost production.

“We’re seeing an increasing number … of large tailings dam failures because they’re being built and operated by companies under financial stress,” Chambers said.

The state and British Columbia recently signed a statement of cooperation on transboundary mining. It promised Alaskans will play a larger role in resource development planning and permitting.

But tribal, or First Nations, leaders from across the border warned that the province has a bad track record of living up to such deals.

Bev Sellars chairs First Nations Women Advocating Responsible Mining.

“My recommendation based on my lifelong experience with the British Columbia government … is to try to get a solid country-to-country agreement on paper. Don’t put all your trust in the province of British Columbia,” Sellars said.

Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott discusses mine pollution concerns with Xat’sull tribal official Jacinda Mack on May 6, 2015. (Photo courtesy Office of the Governor)
Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott discusses mine pollution concerns with Xat’sull tribal official Jacinda Mack on May 6, 2015. (Photo courtesy Office of the Governor)

She said the state should instead push for involvement of the International Joint Commission. That’s a U.S.-Canada body charged with resolving boundary water disputes. The Walker administration and Alaska’s Congressional delegation have asked for that action.

Like Sellars, Jacinda Mack is from a community directly affected by the Mount Polley spill. She said federal involvement is needed because there was little or no advanced planning for the Mount Polley disaster.

“It will be an adaptive management or a figure-it-out-as-we-go approach. And that is not good enough. And it’s something we’ve had to deal with and this is something I think we can get out in front of with these transboundary mines,” Mack said.

The hearing, held in Juneau, was attended by most Southeast lawmakers. Chairwoman Rep. Louise Stutes, who represents Kodiak, Yakutat and Cordova, acknowledged the importance of the issue. She said she plans to hold more hearings to continue looking into the impacts.

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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.