Alaska delegation asks Kerry to review transboundary mining

  • Protesters march down Main Street in Juneau on Aug. 26, 2015, after a rally on the steps of the Alaska State Capitol to bring attention to the long-term protection of transboundary waters, principally the Taku, Stikine and Unuk watersheds. The protesters then walked into a private luncheon between local elected officials and British Columbia Minister of Energy and Mines Bill Bennett. Photo/Michael Penn/Juneau Empire
  • Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, right, and British Columbia Minister of Energy and Mines Bill Bennett hold a press conference on Aug. 26, 2015, in Juneau. Photo/Michael Penn/Juneau Empire

Alaska’s congressional delegation responded to continued concerns from Southeast Alaskans about Canadian mine plans by asking Secretary of State John Kerry to look into whether environmental practices across the border are worthy of scrutiny under a bilateral treaty.

Rep. Don Young and Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan sent a letter to Kerry May 12 requesting the State Department to question Canadian officials about the impact active and proposed hard rock mines in British Columbia and the Yukon could have on salmon in several large “transboundary” rivers.

“Like most Alaskans, we strongly support responsible mining, including mines in Southeast Alaska, but Alaskans need to have every confidence that mining activity in Canada is carried out just as safely as it is in our state,” the delegation wrote. “Yet, today, that confidence does not exist.

“Proposed mining development in the Stikine, Taku River, and Unuk watersheds has raised concerns among commercial and recreational fishermen, tourism interests, and Alaska Native communities regarding water quality maintenance of the transboundary rivers that flow by their homes and onto their fishing grounds.”

The letter references seven active or planned mines just on the British Columbia side of the border from Southeast Alaska. It specifically notes that the long-closed underground Tulsequah Chief metal mine in the Taku drainage northeast of Juneau has been leaking acidic wastewater into the river for many years.

Late last year, Canadian government officials finalized efforts to reduce the leakage but did not require the mine’s water treatment facility be restarted. There have also been proposals to reopen the Tulsequah Chief project.

Also last November, Gov. Bill Walker and British Columbia Premier Christy Clark signed a non-binding memorandum of understanding, or MOU, to establish a Bilateral Working Group on the Protection of Transboundary Waters. The Alaska side of the group, tasked with facilitating an exchange of best practices, marine safety and joint visitor industry promotion among other things, is led by Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott.

The delegation did not go as far as to ask for action by the International Joint Commission, or IJC, which was established in 1909 to resolve disputes over how actions in one country could impact watersheds shared by both. It did, however, urge Kerry to “utilize all measures at your disposal to address this issue at the international level” and decide if the “IJC is a suitable venue to determine whether Canadian mines are following ‘best practices’” for wastewater and mine tailings treatment.

Also highlighted in the delegation’s letter is a British Columbia Auditor General report released earlier this month that is highly critical of the province’s oversight of mining activity.

Additionally, it asked for a more formal consultation process with state agencies, Tribes, and Alaska Native corporations during Canadian mine permit reviews.

While numerous Alaska environmental, commercial fishing, and Alaska Native groups have called for IJC involvement, the commission can only be spurred by a formal call from either the State Department or Canada’s Global Affairs Department.

Those groups lauded the delegation in formal statements reacting to the letter.

“This powerful statement underscores that Alaskans, regardless of political party, want Secretary Kerry to address (British Columbia) mining with Canadian officials so that clean water and healthy salmon runs will support our economy for generations to come,” Salmon Beyond Borders director Heather Hardcastle said.

Originally, IJC intervention was intended only when both governments submit a “letter of referral” asking for the commission to resolve a dispute. Over time that procedure has morphed and both countries have at times singularly requested IJC involvement, which has often been granted.

The commission’s recommendations are nonbinding but generally adhered to in an effort to maintain a cooperative relationship between the countries.

Throughout its history the IJC has been intensely involved in water and air quality issues related to development along Canada’s border with the Lower 48. However, it has never ruled on or heard a water-related contention regarding the Alaska-Canada border, according to a statement on its website.

British Columbia Minister of Energy and Mines Bill Bennett has said in interviews with the Journal and the Juneau Empire that the issues are not with the province’s environmental regulations and enforcement, but rather with better communicating with Alaskans how thoroughly British Columbia monitors its mines.

The province has taken significant heat for the Mount Polley mine tailings dam failure in 2014, which a government investigation concluded was caused by design flaws.

B.C. regulatory report

British Columbia Auditor General Carol Bellringer pulled no punches in a lengthy report released May 3 calling for an overhaul of the province’s environmental regulation enforcement practices.

“We found almost every one of our expectations for a robust compliance and enforcement program within the (Ministry of Energy and Mines) and the (Ministry of Environment) were not met,” Bellringer wrote in comments on the report. “We found major gaps in resources, planning and tools. As a result, monitoring and inspections of mines were inadequate to ensure mine operators complied with requirements. The ministries have not publicly disclosed the limitations with their compliance and enforcement programs, increasing environmental risks, and government’s ability to protect the environment.”

The 109-page report plainly entitled, “An Audit of Compliance and Enforcement of the Mining Sector,” recommends the responsibility to enforce environmental regulations be pulled from the Ministry of Energy and Mines. The ministry is also tasked with promoting resource development, which Bellringer described as being “diametrically opposed” to its regulatory enforcement mandate.

As a result, the report recommends British Columbia establish an independent compliance and enforcement unit for mining activities to ensure environmental protection.

The report also contends Energy and Mines relies too heavily on individuals referred to as “qualified professionals” — industry’s technical experts that are trusted to monitor the mine construction and operation.

“It is not (the Ministry of Energy and Mines’) practice to carry out its own technical review [or to oversee an independent technical review] to confirm that tailings dams are built in accordance with the design and technical standards,” the report states.

Provincial government officials retorted in a response included in the report that the audit team failed to clarify what regulatory compliance and enforcement programs should be measured against. Government’s response also pushed back against the charge that Energy and Mines officials cannot handle the responsibility of both promoting and regulating the mining industry.

“We do not accept that mere appearances are sufficient to warrant the act of removing compliance and enforcement from (Energy and Mines),” government officials wrote. “No one is more aware of the need to find the appropriate balance between promotion and regulation of mining in ministry decision-making than those who are asked to do so on a daily basis.”

Updated: 
05/18/2016 - 4:17pm

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