Alaska’s U.S. senators hosted members of an international commission charged with investigating transboundary water disputes on Monday.
“This has long been a priority — it’s fair to say — for so many of us,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, leading off the discussion with the International Joint Commission. The six-member commission is charged with helping enforce a 1909 treaty between the two countries to resolve disputes over transboundary water resources.
Murkowski said there has long been a concern that British Columbia’s government doesn’t regulate hard rock mining to the same standard as Alaska. The commissioners are looking into concerns with British Columbia’s Golden Triangle mining district and its impact on Southeast Alaska.
A delegation of commissioners from both countries spent the past few days in the region. Canada’s co-chair Pierre Béland said they plan to cross the border to British Columbia’s booming mining districts.
“We’re on a fact-finding mission,” Béland told CoastAlaska. “We want to know what people have to say. So we’ll ask the same questions, and we’ll listen on the other side as we did here.”
Aug. 4 marked the five-year anniversary of the Mount Polley mine disaster in central British Columbia. And with that expired a deadline for Canadian government penalizing its owner Imperial Metals.
For years, there have been fears that a tailings dam failure on a transboundary river could devastate Southeast Alaska fisheries.
Concerns over potential future disasters and legacy pollution lingering from long-shuttered historic mines have been the impetus for green groups pushing the U.S. State Department to refer Alaska’s transboundary mining concerns to the international commission.
U.S. co-chair Jane Corwin said the commission’s intervention would be a last resort.
“But I think that the fact we’re here shows the importance that has been placed on this issue,” she said in an interview. “We get that message, and I believe our Canadian counterparts get that message. And that’s all good for everyone involved.”
The IJC’s two other U.S. commissioners, Lance Yohe and Rob Sisson, also attended.
There was consensus in the room about the need to clean up British Columbia’s Tulsequah Chief mine near the Taku River. Closed since the 1950s, remediation efforts began this year by the provincial government.
As the two U.S. senators left to catch their plane, Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, told CoastAlaska that cleaning up the Tulsequah Chief mine is the low-hanging fruit.
“My view — and this is the view I’ve been pressing with everybody from the prime minister of Canada on down — is a good-faith effort would be to finally close the Tulsequah Chief mine,” Sullivan said. “Let’s start with that. That’s the most urgent, most obvious, and then we’ll continue progress from there.”
“The province shares Alaska’s concerns about the longstanding pollution being discharged in the Tulsequah River from the Tulsequah mine,” British Columbia’s Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources wrote in a statement to CoastAlaska. “We are committed to resolving the ongoing contamination and remediation concerns at the site and holding all owners both past and present accountable for remediation.”
Tribes on both sides of the border have been advocating for cleaning up legacy pollution and better safeguards to protect commercial and subsistence fisheries.
“One of the commissioners mentioned that that you know, they work really closely with First Nations on the Canadian side — so that was very encouraging to hear,” Rob Sanderson Jr. said in an interview. Sanderson is fourth vice president on Tlingit & Haida’s Executive Council.
“Transparency is everything,” he added.
The Monday meeting in the Hurff A. Saunders Federal Building in Juneau also brought together Alaska’s cabinet-level regulators, environmentalists and the mining industry in the same room.
Hecla Mining Company’s Mike Satre said the roundtable meeting showed him potential for common ground.
“We can have responsible resource development on both sides of the border and still maintain our quality of life, our fisheries and our water,” he said.
Salmon Beyond Borders has been pushing for British Columbia to tighten its mining regulations and require stronger financial guarantees when it issues permits. Executive Director Jill Weitz said bringing the commissioners to Alaska is part of getting them up to speed if they’re called upon to elevate the issue to a treaty dispute.
“And I think that in this point in time, having the IJC here to become better educated so that, potentially down the road, when and if — as a senator said — we need help in preventing disputes between the two countries, they’re eager and ready to rock and roll,” she said.
This summer, Alaska’s U.S. senators and their counterparts in three other border states penned a letter to British Columbia Premier John Horgan urging his government to strengthen oversight and accountability of transboundary mines.