Alaska, B.C. regulators discuss concerns over transboundary mining

British Columbia regulators offered an update on May 19, 2021 on the progress towards cleaning up the Tulsequah Chief legacy mine about 10 miles upstream from Alaska’s boundary with B.C. (Screenshot by Jacob Resneck/CoastAlaska)

Alaska’s top environmental regulators held a cross-border Zoom session May 19 with British Columbia officials in charge of permitting mines in the shared transboundary watershed that flows into Southeast Alaska.

“This area is called the Golden Triangle for a reason,” said Peter Robb, a deputy minister with B.C.’s mining ministry, pointing out a sparsely populated area in the province’s northwest that faces the Alaska’s panhandle.

“There is lots of exploration and lots of potential in these rocks,” he added. “And we will continue to see that exploration and development, and we want to work with our Indigenous partners to build what that future looks like.”

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

Beyond holding promising mining prospects, the Golden Triangle is also on the headwaters of major salmon-producing rivers in Southeast Alaska, like the Stikine, Unuk and Taku.

Officials from both sides presented findings from a joint water monitoring study on three transboundary rivers. The study grew out of the landmark 2015 agreement inked by Gov. Bill Walker and his B.C. counterpart.

Tribes and others have criticized the joint-decision to wrap up their work after just two years.

But Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation’s Terri Lomax says the water quality standards on Alaska’s side of the boundary were within regulatory limits. And there’s already monitoring being done by Alaska tribes, Canadian First Nations, the U.S. government and mining companies themselves.

There was no need for additional monitoring from the state of Alaska and British Columbia,” she said.

Canadians give report on Tulsequah Chief Mine cleanup

Efforts are continuing to finally clean up the long shuttered Tulsequah Chief Mine. B.C.’s deputy chief of abandoned mines Diane Howe described a year-old remediation plan.

She spoke of eventually using water to fill the mine’s underground complex.

By flooding this area, we are going to cut off the oxygen to this area which is the main culprit for causing the (acid rock drainage),” she said.

A Tulsequah Chief Mine settling pond overflows at the site about 40 miles northeast of Juneau Sept. 26, 2016. (Photo Courtesy of British Columbia Ministry of Energy and Mines)
A Tulsequah Chief Mine settling pond overflows at the site about 40 miles northeast of Juneau Sept. 26, 2016. (Courtesy of British Columbia Ministry of Energy and Mines)

For decades, acid rock drainage has been visible as a red and orange acidic sludge leaching into a tributary of the Taku River about 10 miles upstream from the border.

Provincial officials have been prepping a $37 million plan for the former mine, which the owners have not cleaned up.

Alaska officials applauded the preparatory work so far.

I know this has been a sore spot between the US and Canada for years,” Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang said. “But we’re very pleased with the effort that you have been making towards towards identifying the issues at the site, identifying a path forward to clean up and this presentation highlights that you have a pathway identified moving forward.”

The Tulsequah Chief Mine hasn’t been active since 1957. But there have been attempts by various firms to restart mining. Its current owner is a capital investment firm that’s been trying to find a new buyer. A Canadian bankruptcy court last year ruled it has until August 2022 to find a new buyer.

That was echoed by DEC Commissioner Jason Brune, who told his provincial counterparts that responsible mining is important to his boss.

I know on behalf of Gov. Dunleavy, this is a very large priority for us,” Brune said. “And it’s one that we take very seriously and have a number of meetings with with our colleagues from B.C. and we appreciate that relationship.”

Absent from the call were any representatives from Southeast Alaska’s tribes or Canada’s First Nations. Both have been critical of the pace of cleaning up abandoned mines and ongoing permitting of new ones they say could foul salmon habitat that’s both a critical source of food and income.

Tribes, conservationists underwhelmed by summit

Conservationists and tribes released a joint statement less than an hour after the meeting, criticizing the lack of commitments offered by either side.

“Why is this the first public meeting by Alaska/British Columbia since the Walker-Mallott Administration?” Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission Chair Rob Sanderson, Jr. wrote in a statement.

Others said they they failed to see the point of the publicity surrounding the meeting as officials routinely discuss these issues as part of the transboundary bilateral working group between the state and province.

“We didn’t learn anything new whatsoever,” said Chris Zimmer of Rivers Without Borders, an advocacy group in Juneau. He told CoastAlaska there was a lot of technical discussion from reports that had been released months ago.

“That’s all we heard,” he added. “We wanted to hear about next steps and commitments and not essentially a rehash of what we already know.”

The meeting comes just weeks after the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights agreed to hear a petition from Southeast Alaska tribes asking it to investigate Canadian mines in transboundary watersheds. But that won’t be a swift process — the Canadian government isn’t expected to reply to the petition until later this summer.

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