Mallott, Sullivan meet with top Canadians on transboundary issues
Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott and Sen. Dan Sullivan watched Super Bowl LII together in Ottawa and spent time strategizing on their approach to the next day’s meetings.
They were there to discuss issues as far-reaching as ocean debris, missile defense and the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canadian federal officials as well as provincial and First Nations leaders, according to Sullivan, but the priority topic brought up in every discussion was that of Canadian mines at the headwaters of rivers that terminate in Alaska.
The state officials reviewed the meetings in a Feb. 5 call with Alaska press.
From the outset, Sullivan said the fact that Mallott, a longtime Democrat leader in the state, and himself, a staunch conservative, were in lockstep on the transboundary rivers issue sent a “powerful message of unity and that this is a very important issue of concern for the people we represent.”
At the heart of the matter are 10 mines in British Columbia that are either in operation or stages of exploration and development. Those mines or mineral prospects are mostly open pit projects focused on copper and gold recovery.
The mine locations within the watersheds of the large Taku, Stikine and Unuk rivers that support large salmon fisheries are the primary cause for concern among Southeast Alaska commercial fishing and conservation groups that fear problems at the mines could damage or destroy the rivers’ fisheries.
Mallott and Sullivan said they pushed four priorities they are seeking action on from Canadian officials — either at the federal or provincial levels. The Alaskans requested increased transparency in the permitting process for the mines and opportunities for Alaskan stakeholders to provide input when mine plans are being reviewed.
They also asked for additional financial assurances or bonding requirements for the mine operating companies to protect Alaska fishing and tourism businesses that rely on robust fisheries in the rivers “if, God forbid, we had a Mt. Polley-type disaster that went into our waters,” Sullivan described.
The 2014 Mt. Polley mine tailings dam breach spilled more than 6 billion gallons of wastewater into the upper Fraser River system in British Columbia. Mt. Polley mine operator Vancouver-based Imperial Metals Corp. opened the Red Chris copper-gold mine in the upper Stikine River watershed in 2015.
Sullivan added that they also asked the Canadian government to join in funding baseline water quality studies and ongoing monitoring to track if the mines are impacting the rivers, a program which Congress started funding last year.
Lastly, they insisted on immediate reclamation of the Tulsequah Chief mine that has been leaching acid rock drainage into the Taku River near Juneau since the mine was abandoned in 1957. A temporary water treatment plant was built in 2011 to deal with the leaching but it was quickly shut down in 2012, according to the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.
Chieftain Metals Corp. is now proposing an underground mine at the Tulsequah site that is about 10 miles upriver from the Alaska border. The project received regulatory approval from British Columbia in 2012 but is awaiting financing.
Sullivan said he thought the meetings were constructive but the transboundary issue is far from solved.
“We put forward some specific requests and we’re going to press on those,” he said Feb. 5. “I think they’re legitimate requests; I think they’re reasonable requests but they’re requests for specific actions and we certainly hope our Canadian friends will work with us to follow up on it.”
Mallott said the talks furthered the progress made by the Walker administration on the issue.
In 2015, Gov. Bill Walker and British Columbia Premier Christy Clark signed a memorandum of understanding to promote economic development in concert with environmental protection. That led to a statement of cooperation signed by Mallott and British Columbia Environment and Mines ministers in Oct. 2016, which established a working group of state and provincial officials to discuss transboundary issues.
Mallott said the meetings were important because the sides were able to discuss important policies that are outside of the nonbinding statement of cooperation.
A possible referral of the issue to the International Joint Commission — strongly advocated for by Alaska Native and conservation groups — was not discussed in detail during the meetings but will be part of talks between the governments in the spring, according to Mallott.
“The process involved for an IJC referral will continue to be discussed by the (federal) governments and we have asked them to do so,” he said.
The International Joint Commission consists of five commissioners, two from Canada and three from the U.S., who review transboundary watershed issues. It was established after the 1909 Boundary Water Treaty, which at the time settled a battle between Montana and Alberta farmers who had dug competing canals to divert water from area rivers to their farms. According to its website, the commission has since settled more than 100 matters raised by the governments.
An arbiter body, IJC can only get involved when called upon by both governments. In the U.S., the State Department makes that call.
In November, Walker, Mallott and three members of the Alaska congressional delegation sent a joint letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, urging him to help protect Alaska’s economic interests of fishing and tourism in Southeast by raising the transboundary mine issue in talks with his Canadian counterparts.
Charles Faulkner, of the State Department’s Bureau of Legislative Affairs, responded with a letter Dec. 14, writing that the State Department and the Environmental Protection Agency have established a workgroup to coordinate actions and communicate concerns to Canadian officials.
State Department officials in October also got a commitment from Global Affairs Canada to take up a bilateral review of potential gaps or shortcomings in cooperative agreements between the countries that deal with transboundary issues.
“The Department of State will lead this review process with interagency and stakeholder input, with the goal of sharing its findings with Global Affairs Canada at the April 2018 IJC meetings,” Faulkner wrote. “We value your assistance and input in this effort. As Canadian support would be required for a joint IJC reference, we will continue to raise this issue in upcoming bilateral meetings.”
The issue of mines in British Columbia potentially impacting fisheries in Alaska waters has been one Alaska officials have tried to tread lightly on despite calls for a much tougher stance by some Southeast groups. That’s because, for one, they do not want to strain what has historically been a strong relationship with British Columbia and Canada in general, as well as the facts that the state has little actual leverage in addition to a long history if mining and support for the industry.
To the latter point, Sullivan said he emphasized that Alaska supports resource development in the meetings, but he believes the state has valid concerns given what could happen downriver from the mines.
He and Mallott also said the issue of oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain — one Canadian Embassy officials actively lobbied against in Congress during the tax reform debate — came up in the transboundary river meetings. Sullivan described it as “probably one of the more contentious issues of our meetings.”
“There was a bit of an analogy between the Porcupine caribou herd and transboundary mining and I, at least in my response, said I rejected that completely,” Sullivan recalled.
Canadian officials have opposed oil development in ANWR for the fear that it would impact the calving grounds of the caribou herd that migrates into the Yukon Territory and is relied on by there by First Nations people as it is by some Alaska Natives.
In a December interview with the Journal, Sullivan contended that the only reason Canada opposes development in ANWR is because the country didn’t find any oil on its side of the border when exploratory drilling was done in the Yukon Arctic decades ago.
In that interview, Sullivan said he told the Canadian ambassador to the U.S. to “stand down” or he was going to “do everything I can to screw your country.”
The delegation in an October letter to the Canadian ambassador to the U.S. said British Columbia to that point had done “remarkably little” to consider their transboundary concerns and pointed to the Mt. Polley and the Tulsequah Chief mine as demonstrable indicators that “Canadian mining is not always carried out to the same safety standards as in the U.S.”
Mallott said the state will follow through with consultation that is required under a 1987 treaty with Canada meant to ensure a healthy Porcupine caribou herd. The state is also working to develop an accord with the Yukon Territory to address climate change and economic development matters, according to Mallott.
“We were very clear to say we’re supportive of the exploration that is now authorized in the 1002 area of ANWR but that we also wanted to work closely with particularly the indigenous people on both sides of the border as we proceed ahead,” Mallott said.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.