Alaska tribes join with Lower 48 allies to seek protections from impacts of Canadian mines

The Stikine River Flats area in the Tongass National Forest is viewed from a helicopter on July 19, 2021. The Stikine River flows from British Columbia to Southeast Alaska. It is one of the major transboundary rivers impacted by mines in British Columbia. Alaska tribes and communities are seeking some new protection to avoid downstream impacts. (Photo by Alicia Stearns/U.S. Forest Service)

Alaska Native tribes seeking better protection from the environmental impacts of Canadian mines have enlisted some allies in their flight: Lower 48 tribal governments with concerns of their own about transboundary mining impacts.

A delegation of tribal representatives from Alaska, Washington state, Montana and Idaho traveled to Washington, D.C., this week for meetings on Wednesday that pushed for action to regulate downstream effects of mines in British Columbia.

The meetings Tuesday and Wednesday were with Biden administration officials and officials at the Canadian embassy, said a statement from the National Wildlife Federation.

Chalyee Éesh Richard Peterson, president of the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, has a representative attending the meetings.

“Canada’s mining in our shared rivers is one of the biggest threats to our wild salmon and our Indigenous way of life,” Peterson said in a written statement. “In the face of a rapidly changing climate, British Columbia continues to permit massive open-pit gold mines in the headwaters of our largest salmon producing rivers – without the consent of downstream Tribes.

“Our way of life depends upon the health of our transboundary waters and we will not stop until we can ensure the environmental security and stability of our shared rivers. We have been calling on the United States and Canada to honor their legal and ethical obligations and to act immediately to protect our traditional territories from legacy, on-going, and proposed mining in British Columbia. We must get ahead of this before it’s too late.”

The tribes are seeking protective action under the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909, the framework for resolving disputes over shared waters. The organization that investigates cross-border problems and recommends solutions is the International Joint Commission.

The Stikine-LeConte Wilderness Area, seen on June 18, 2014, is located near Wrangell and at the saltwater terminus of the river. The Stikine River flows from British Columbia, and downstream areas in Alaska are at risk from mining pollution generated in that Canadian province, tribal officials say. (Photo by Brian Logan/U.S. Forest Service)

Alaska tribes, communities, fishermen and various other organizations have for years expressed concerns about cross-border impacts from mines in British Columbia.

Teaming up with the Lower 48 tribes is a somewhat new approach, said Mary Catharine Martin of the Juneau-based group Salmon Beyond Borders. The tribes from different regions have different specific issues of concern, but they are similar in that they are about the “poorly regulated British Columbia mining that does not take into account the concerns of the people who live downstream,” Martin said.

The unified tribal campaign comes amid a British Columbia mining boom, with industry expenditures hitting a near-record level in 2021.

For Southeast Alaska, the main rivers affected by British Columbia mining are the Taku, Stikine and Unuk, Martin said. There are dozens of operating or formerly operating mines along those rivers, most of them gold producers with large quantities of waste material, she said.

Communities and organizations in Southeast Alaska have two specific goals they are trying to accomplish, Martin said. They are seeking a ban on mine waste dams on transboundary rivers shared by British Columbia and Alaska, and they want a pause on new mining in the key transboundary fivers “until all of us connected to the rivers are consulted and have a seat at the table,” she said

There is a British Columbia/Alaska Bilateral Working Group that addresses transboundary water issues, but that is largely an information-gathering and information-sharing organization. It does not have any enforcement powers.

The Biden administration has already taken some action on mining impacts to tribal areas in Montana and Idaho. The State Department in June called for an investigation by the International Joint Commission into selenium pollution flowing downstream into those states from coal mines operated by Teck Resources.

This story originally appeared in the Alaska Beacon and is republished here with permission.

Alaska Beacon

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and Twitter.

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