House Fisheries urges pressure on B.C. over transboundary mining

More than a dozen working and legacy mine sites are located in watersheds that are shared between British Columbia and Southeast Alaska. (Image courtesy of B.C. Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources)

A legislative committee heard from mine critics on both sides of the border during a Tuesday hearing in Juneau. It’s part of an effort to pressure British Columbia to tighten its mining regulations to reduce the threat of pollution from transboundary mines.

After hearing exclusively from mine critics, Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, said the House Fisheries Committee’s 90-minute hearing on transboundary mining wasn’t meant to be anti-mine.

“We are simply asking our neighbors across the border to adhere to best and safe practices when mining in our shared watersheds,” the committee’s chairwoman said, “which is clearly something they have a poor track record with.”

The “poor track record” Stutes referenced is the Mount Polley disaster in 2014.

A tailings dam breached, releasing billions of gallons of mine waste into salmon rich streams in British Columbia. The mining company Imperial Metals was never fined by B.C. regulators.

Ketchikan Gateway Borough Mayor David Landis said that’s evidence that Southeast’s fisheries and visitor economies are vulnerable to future mishaps.

“We need to do everything we can to protect ourselves from the risks of potential contamination from the Canadian mines upstream,” Landis told the committee by telephone.

In 2015, Gov. Bill Walker signed a formal pact with his B.C. counterpart to ensure closer cooperation over shared watersheds.

Late last year the Walker administration went further, urging B.C.’s government to require mine projects to post full reclamation bonds. Financial assurances are used to ensure the public doesn’t foot the bill if a mine goes belly up or suffers a catastrophic failure.

Alaska’s fishing industry supported the move, noting reclamation bonds are industry standard and required for Alaska mines.

“United Fishermen of Alaska continues to support this request,” UFA Executive Director Frances Leach said, “to ensure that the state resources are not harmed by Canadian large scale mining developments and the headwaters of transboundary salmon rivers.”

Canada’s EcoFiscal Commission – an independent Canadian economic think tank – has urged reform for B.C.’s mining regulations.

Despite the laws on the books, in practice polluters in B.C. often don’t pay – as was seen at Mt. Polley, the committee heard.

“When a company knows it might not bear all of the costs of a risk it poses, in terms of the harm it might cause, it has less of an economic incentive to reduce that risk,” EcoFiscal Commmission researcher Jason Dion said by telephone from Ottawa. “And so from our perspective, that’s a really, really important shortcoming.”

Notably absent at the hearing was anyone from the mining industry or Dunleavy administration. Alaska lawmakers recently wrote a letter urging the administration to not lose focus on the issue.

But the Department of Natural Resources confirmed to CoastAlaska that a cabinet-level teleconference will be held on transboundary mining on June 18.

It will include the commissioners of Alaska’s departments of Environmental Conservation, Natural Resources and Fish and Game and top-ranking officials from B.C.’s mining and environmental ministries.

It will be the sixth meeting of the bilateral working group of Alaska and B.C. governments that was initiated in 2015.

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Jacob Resneck is CoastAlaska's regional news director in Juneau.

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