Canadian environmental officials just gave provisional approval to a controversial mine planned for an area northeast of Ketchikan. Their counterparts in British Columbia have done the same.
Fisheries, tribal and other activists on both sides of the border say this is one of the last chances for critics to let Canadian officials hear their opposition.
Brent Murphy stands on a windy, alpine ridge covered with short plants and wildflowers. He’s overlooking a deep valley, not far from the Alaska border.
Murphy’s a spokesman and environmental official for Seabridge Gold. That’s the company working to develop the Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell prospect into a mine.
“We’re on the west slope of the proposed tailings management facility for the KSM project. You can see, in front of us, is the valley that we’re proposing to utilize,” he says.
Working with the government and tribal officials, the company chose this valley to dam and store mine tailings. That’s the waste rock left after gold, copper and other valuable minerals are removed.
“From an environmental, economic, operational safety point of view, this is the best location to ensure a responsible project,” he says.
A helicopter takes us across snowfields and glaciers to another valley, this one barren, with steep, iron-red-brown stained walls.
Trickling streams and gushing waterfalls carry the naturally occurring acid rock drainage into a nearby creek. It drains down the slope and eventually into a waterway that feeds into the Unuk River, which crosses the border north of Ketchikan.
This is where miners will dig one of several huge pits to extract the ore. Most of the water will be diverted. Murphy says what they can’t keep out of the pits will be collected for treatment.
“And there’ll be a dam located just downstream and that will basically hold the water back. And then we’ll direct the water into a treatment plant and then it will be discharged into Sulphurets Creek … and that goes into the Unuk,” he says.
Those plans, and many more details, are part of an environmental assessment that just won provisional approval from Canadian officials. It’s now open for public comment, which will be considered before the approval becomes final.
It follows a similar decision from the province.
The federal report says, quote, “The agency concludes that the KSM Project is not likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects, taking into account the implementation of the mitigation measures described in this report.”
Greg Knox is executive director of the British Columbia watershed protection group called Skeena Wild Conservation Trust. He says the decisions are no surprise.
“Government in British Columbia is very pro-industry and they try to do what they can to make projects go ahead. So, their statements are as expected,” he says.
The company’s measures include the water-treatment plant, in the Unuk watershed. They also include the tailings storage facility, which drains into the Naas River, which empties into the ocean not far from the Southeast Alaska border.
Members of the public have through August 20 to comment on the lengthy plan.
That may not be easy, says biologist Kevin Koch, who works for the Gitanyow Fisheries Authority, part of the tribal government for a region including the Nass River. He says many projects are proposed for northwest British Columbia.
“These facts might be buried, like with KSM, within a 33,000-page environmental assessment application. And sometimes it’s tricky to make sure you have the right facts within these massive applications,” he says.
Alaska critics won’t hesitate to let their views be known.
A press release citing representatives of the Tlingit-Haida Central Council, the Petersburg Vessel Owners Association, Rivers without Borders and a sport-fishing company, names numerous problems with the project.
Rob Sanderson of the Central Council of Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, and co-chair of the United Tribal Transboundary Working Group, says officials should add another level of review.
They say polluted mine water from the KSM will damage salmon and other fish that spend part of their lives in Alaska waters. They worry a catastrophic dam collapse could destroy extensive areas of habitat. And they say the project will create much more acid drainage than occurs naturally in the area.
“One way for Canada to do this would be to establish what is known as a Panel Review, which would provide an opportunity to better address our concerns,” he says.
Critics say there’s no guarantee that the people promising to protect the environment will be around when they’re most needed.
Knox, of the conservation trust, agrees.
“If they do either start to build the mine or they build the mine and operate it for part or all of the timeline, and then something happens to the company, then there’s a real risk to the people of B.C., the people of Canada, and potentially those folks downstream,” he says.
Seabridge Gold’s Murphy says the company is sincere in its efforts to protect the environment.
He says the assessment plan is full of ideas from environmental activists, tribal leaders, fishermen, hunters and others concerned about the project.