Wrangell joins other Southeast communities, tribes in calling for transboundary mine reforms

The Stikine River empties into the ocean near Wrangell. Mines and energy projects proposed for upstream sites in Canada are worrying some fishermen and tribal leaders. (Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)
The Stikine River empties into the ocean near Wrangell. Mines and energy projects proposed for upstream sites in Canada are worrying some municipal and tribal governments. (File/CoastAlaska News)

Wrangell has joined with a dozen other Southeast municipal and tribal governments in calling for stronger protections from mines in Canada that straddle transboundary watersheds.

Wrangell’s assembly and residents say the issue is especially pressing to the community, which sits in the mouth of the British Columbia-originating Stikine River.

Wrangell’s assembly has unanimously called on Canadian regulators to immediately pause permitting, development and expansion of mines upstream from Southeast Alaska’s waterways. It’s also asking the provincial government of British Columbia to permanently ban the practice of storing liquid mine waste behind earthen dams.

That’s because there aren’t financial or legal protections in place for Southeast Alaska tribes and communities that depend on transboundary salmon watersheds. If a mine dam failed in Canada, it argues the downstream waste could devastate the environment and economy of communities like Wrangell.

Wrangell Mayor Steve Prysunka says he’s seen firsthand how mines have been abandoned in Canada, “And I’m here to tell you it was insane,” Prysunka told the assembly at a meeting on October 26.

In a previous job, he ran canoe trips on the Iskut River — the largest tributary of the Stikine — near the old Johnny Mountain mine site. “This was shortly after the shutdown and they literally walked away. We’d go into a building and there would still be the beakers inside the lab with Bunsen burners and rain gear still suspended. It was like they just disappeared. And over the course of three years or four years, I watched that tailings pond drain down the side of the mountain … It was this unreal turquoise color that was just unnatural. It reminded me of Lake Louise in Alberta. And it was just filled with all these minerals and was all draining down into the Iskut and into the Stikine.”

Mining industry publications report that the former Johnny Mountain mine was further cleaned in 2017.

But Prysunka’s larger point was that it’s important to protect Wrangell from legacy pollution. The borough’s resolution points out how the Stikine River is integral to Wrangell’s fishing economy, the work of the community’s Marine Service Center, and the traditional lifestyle of the indigenous population.

Wrangell resident and artist Brenda Schwartz-Yeager spoke in favor of the action at the assembly’s Tuesday meeting.

“I believe that for all of us here, whether you’re a fisherman, a health care worker, a teacher or a boat repair person, a little bit of Stikine River water runs through just about everything we do here in Wrangell,” Schwartz-Yeager told the assembly. “I don’t think this community would exist at all if it wasn’t for the remarkable richness and bounty of the Stikine. It’s a fragile ecosystem.”

Schwartz-Yeager told the assembly she finds it “incredible and scary” the size of the tailings upriver from Wrangell.

The largest mine operating in the Stikine River watershed is the Red Chris Mine, operated by Imperial Metals since 2015. That’s the same company that operated the Mt. Polley Mine that had a tailings dam failure in 2014. The tailings dam which holds mine waste from the Red Chris Mine is more than twice as tall.

“These mining companies have a pretty deplorable track record for taking responsibility for previous messes that they’ve made,” Schwartz-Yeager said. “We have a lot to lose, and they kind of have a lot to gain and really not a lot to lose. I feel like we need a place at the table, and I feel like this resolution will help bring us closer to using the treaty to put some teeth in the agreements that might help us downstream stakeholders. We just need a voice.”

The Petersburg assembly recently passed a similar resolution calling on its Canadian neighbors to tighten restrictions on mines in transboundary Alaska watersheds, including along the Stikine, Taku and Unuk rivers.

The Mining Association of British Columbia responded with a letter defending its safety record. Reached for comment, the industry group pointed to the October letter that says B.C.’s mine sector has made improvements to tailings dam oversight and safety in the years since the Mt. Polley disaster.

The Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission is a coalition of 15 tribes that banded together in the wake of the 2014 dam failure. Wrangell tribal citizen Tis Peterman is a former executive director of the commission, and said in an interview that they’re still working to gain representation as stakeholders in transboundary watersheds.

“We feel as tribal members in Southeast Alaska, that we should have a voice,” Peterman said, “Because anything that’s being done on the B.C. side on transboundary mining is going to affect downstream communities.”

Peterman says the Canadian government needs to recognize the rights of all indigenous peoples affected by its actions, not just those within a relatively recent border: “Tribes have pretty well taken care of the land for thousands of years. And to have a say in how the waters are being affected in Southeast Alaska is one of our rights.”

“It’s literally out our back door. Look across the backchannel. There’s Canada,” Peterman added.

Wrangell’s local tribe, the Wrangell Cooperative Association, is a member of SEITC, and had already passed a resolution asking for more engagement and protections from the effects of transboundary mines.

The years following the Mt. Polley mine disaster renewed calls for transboundary mining permit requests to be considered under what’s called the International Joint Commission. The IJC was formed under the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 and is meant to resolve water disputes between the U.S. and Canada.

But Alaska critics say that call for IJC oversight of transboundary mines hasn’t borne fruit.

“Until we have binding protections in place, we are just sitting ducks below what everybody calls these ticking time bombs,” says Jill Weitz, the Juneau-based campaign director for Salmon Beyond Borders, one of the organizations that requested a resolution on transboundary mining protections from Wrangell’s government.

Like Peterman, Weitz notes that the community of Wrangell is mere miles from the mouth of the Stikine River.

“Nearly the entire riparian corridor of the Stikine watershed is staked with mineral claims –54% of the river’s lower watershed is covered by mineral claims that overlap with salmon spawning habitat,” Weitz explains. “We’re not under the illusion that mining is going to stop or that any of us are going to stop mining in British Columbia. We need some of these resources towards the energy transition that is underway in face of a changing climate. But mining can be done better, it has to be done better.”

Alaska and B.C. regulators have been meeting regularly to discuss transboundary mining issues since 2016 under a bilateral agreement signed during Gov. Walker’s administration. And state officials say their B.C. counterparts do consult with them when permits are being reviewed for mines in transboundary watersheds.

Earlier this year, the government of B.C. did invite the tribal consortium SEITC to meet about transboundary mining and other tribal environmental concerns. It was the first such meeting for Southeast tribes. That’s in addition to discussions underway with the Tahltan Central Government on Canada’s side of the border about mining safety and indigenous input to the permitting process.

This isn’t the first time Wrangell has called on the Canadian government to create a table for discussion with indigenous and municipal governments from Alaska — the assembly passed resolutions in 2017, 2019 and 2020. But it’s a stronger request than before, with a call for an immediate pause on permitting new mines and a full ban for earthen tailings dams.

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