Mary C Martin

BC, Alaska to draft MOU for mine processes

JUNEAU — The province of British Columbia and the State of Alaska will draft a memorandum of understanding regarding mines proposed for and located in transboundary watersheds in British Columbia, BC Minister of Energy and Mines William “Bill” Bennett and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallot announced Wednesday at a press conference. Through the MOU, the State of Alaska and British Columbia hope to create a structured way for tribes, stakeholders, environmental groups, sport and commercial fishermen, tourism operators, and other concerned Southeast Alaskans to get information and share concerns about each stage of a mine in a transboundary watershed, including assessment, permitting, operation, closure and reclamation. Bennett said he doesn’t have a guarantee from Alaska that the two will get to a point where the state will sign an MOU, but that’s what BC is hoping for. “Our goal is to, obviously, ensure the environmental integrity, the pristine water quality of those river systems for all time,” Mallott said. “And we will vigorously act in Alaska’s interest to make sure that happens…. We hope that we will be able to expand that process of openness, transparency and meaningful involvement throughout our long-term engagement.” They also aim to involve tribes, first nations and industry in monitoring water quality in the watersheds affected, both for baseline and ongoing datasets. Bennett said he would like to have the memorandum in place within 30 to 60 days. “Such a document would not be engraved in stone,” Mallott said. “It would be living, based upon the needs and the changing circumstances as they may occur over time.” An MOU and International Joint Commission or federal involvement are not mutually exclusive, Bennett said. Concerned Southeast Alaskans have been calling for the involvement of the IJC under the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909. The IJC resolves disputes about transboundary waters. “Signing a memorandum of understanding or a memorandum of agreement between a state and the province is a way for us to strengthen the relationship, and to create some structures around that relationship, so we have some direction going forward in how we’re going to do business. And for the life of me, I can’t see how it could be construed as a negative thing,” Bennett said. “It doesn’t preclude anything else.” Alaska will continue to engage the federal government, Mallott said; he hopes to speak with Secretary of State John Kerry about transboundary mining when Kerry is in Alaska to “impress upon him the importance of this issue to both of our nations,” to let him know about state and provincial efforts to work together, and to make sure State Department officials keep updated on the issue. For his part, Bennett said he welcomes federal Canadian government help if it is necessary.  One way the government may get involved, he said, is the issue of compensation to Alaskans “should the unthinkable happen.” That’s something some concerned Southeast Alaskans brought up to him over his time here so far, he said. Talks between the two countries were spurred forward following a tailings dam brach at the Mount Polley Mine in August 2014 that sent billions of gallons of toxic tailings into the Quesnel Lake watershed. “It’s a very difficult issue, because it’s an issue that all neighboring countries, I think, wrestle with from time to time,” Mallott said. “Canada and the US have wrestled with this probably for 100 years… I think the federal governments need to be involved in that part of the discussion.” Just the same, he said he thinks most issues can be resolved through provincial and state communication and cooperation. “We are working to have that engagement with all of those interests who have a passionate, direct involvement with these systems,” Mallott said. “Others who have a more public policy orientation — all of those views, all of those perspectives are hugely important. And creating the opportunity for those views to be shared across the border from both directions, I think, will be hugely important and helpful going forward.” It was the first time in more than 20 years for these kinds of international meetings, a release from Mallott’s office said. Bennett and a team from British Columbia were in Juneau for the first part of the week meeting with elected officials, tribes, miners, environmental organizations, fishermen and other stakeholders, as well as touring the Taku River. Today, Bennett and Mallott are in Ketchikan; other BC officials are touring Hecla Mining Company’s Greens Creek Mine on Admiralty Island. Contact outdoors writer Mary Catharine Martin at [email protected]

BC minister talks transboundary mine issues

JUNEAU — British Columbia Minister of Energy and Mines William “Bill” Bennett, on a four-day trip to Southeast Alaska, said after visiting the Tulsequah Chief Mine on Aug. 24 that the pollution the defunct mine has been draining into the Taku River watershed for decades should be fixed. Bennett and several other British Columbian representatives were in Southeast Alaska Aug. 23 through Aug. 27, meeting with tribes, stakeholders, government officials, environmental groups, elected officials and fishermen, as well as touring the Taku River, going to see Greens Creek Mine and other activities. On Aug. 24, Bennett and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott visited the Tulsequah Chief mine. The Tulsequah Chief has been leaching acid mine drainage into the Tulsequah River since it closed in 1957, and Alaska has been asking British Columbia to clean up the mine site for years. British Columbia and Environment Canada have also been trying to get the companies that own it (they’ve changed over the years) to clean it up. Chieftain Metals Corp. is the current owner. Tulsequah Chief drainage “is not something that I’m proud of, as a British Columbian,” Bennett said. “It’s something that needs to be addressed.” A December 2014 report found that the drainage poses a low risk to fish in the Tulsequah River and is not affecting fish in the Taku River, into which the Tulsequah flows. Bennett mentioned those findings, but added that “it (the drainage) is still something that needs to be rectified. I think that BC is going to have to find a way to rectify it sooner rather than later, and I think it is a most legitimate criticism of us by those folks in Alaska that don’t like it.” The trip up the Taku, Mallott said, was “just a … further ratification” of the reasons to strengthen the working relationship between Alaska and the British Columbia government. “The bottom line for us is that Alaska’s interests are clearly, in a timely manner, in an appropriate manner, and in a very responsible manner, protected, and we will use every opportunity, we will use every tool that is available to us in order to achieve that,” Mallott said. IJC Bennett said those tools shouldn’t yet involve the International Joint Commission, which many Southeast Alaskans concerned about transboundary mining have been working towards involving under the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909. “It’s very much premature to start rushing towards, you know, one big solution that’s going to make everybody feel better,” Bennett said of IJC involvement. First, he said, everyone needs to agree on the facts. “One of the things we need to do is get the facts straight in terms of what exactly is going on in Northwestern British Columbia,” Bennett said. Bennett said there’s a perception in Alaska that many of the transboundary mines the province is working toward approving are already in operation. The Red Chris, in the Stikine River watershed, began operating this year, and the Brucejack, in the Unuk River watershed, recently received federal environmental approval. “There is time to get this right,” he said of other proposed mines, like Kerr Sulphurets Mitchell, in the Unuk River watershed. He also said there’s a perception that the independent panel report on Mount Polley Mine’s August 2014 tailings dam failure, released earlier this year, said dry stack tailings is the only real option. “They in fact do not say that dry stack tailings is the only way to achieve best available technology,” Bennett said of the report. “If you have potentially acid-generating rock, you probably will want to put that underwater because it neutralizes the generation of acid. ... All the experts in mining are well aware of that. There’s a variety of ways you can achieve best available technology. ... Some folks have fastened onto the idea that the panel has said dry stack tailings is the only way to go, when in fact, they didn’t say that.” The report read: “Improving technology to ensure against failures requires eliminating water both on and in the tailings: water on the surface, and water contained in the interparticle voids. Only this can provide the kind of failsafe redundancy that prevents releases no matter what…. Simply put, dam failures are reduced by reducing the number of dams that can fail.” It added that, “... Mount Polley has shown the intrinsic hazards associated with dual-purpose impoundments storing both water and tailings.” It acknowledges the importance of the chemical stability Bennett mentioned, as well as the fact that water covers are a convenient way to arrest chemical reactions, but added that “chemical stability requires above all else that the tailings stay in one place” and recommends that “where applicable, alternatives to water covers should be aggressively pursued.” The Red Chris, which was approved just a few business days after the report came out, uses a watered tailings facility. Bennett says that BC will adopt and implement all seven of the panel’s recommendations and that he has a letter from one of the report’s authors attesting that dry stack tailings are not the only way. “Anybody that says the Red Chris was permitted in contravention of the report just simply hasn’t read the report,” he said. “There are many, many things that have been said that are not correct.” Trip goals Over the course of the four days he’s in Southeast Alaska, Bennett said he aims to build trust between Alaska and BC, to listen “to people that have interests in salmon” as well as state officials, fishermen and those in tourism and “to see what we can do to provide some comfort about BC’s mining processes.” “We don’t have any illusions about coming here for four days and suddenly, you know, having everybody jumping up and down saying, ‘Well, isn’t it great that BC’s potentially going to build a mine upstream from us?’” he said. “What we hope for is an opportunity to have some respectful dialogue with people who have been expressing concerns.” Bennett sought to find common ground with the concerned groups with whom he’s speaking, saying that he shares the same values as people here who are concerned. He added that he hunts and fishes himself. He and Mallott went fishing Aug. 25. “I understand why people feel so strongly about protecting what they have. ... There’s a way of life here that has tremendous value, and the people who live here don’t want to lose that. I get that. I understand that,” he said. BC also plans to offer Alaska additional access to the mine approval process and to “make it easier” to get information, which Bennett said he hopes will set environmental organizations and tribes at ease. “Folks in Alaska, because they’re downstream of these proposed projects, have every right to know how we’re doing our work in BC, and what evidence we’re basing our decisions on,” Bennett said. Bennett arrived in Alaska Aug. 23 with Cynthia Petrie, Chief of Staff; Wes Shoemaker, Deputy Minister for the Ministry of Environment; Dave Morel, Assistant Deputy Minister for the Ministry of Energy and Mines; Doug Hill, Mining Section Head of the Ministry of Environment’s Environmental Protection Division; Chris Hamilton, Senior Executive Lead Executive Project Director for the Ministry of Environment’s Environmental Assessment Office, and Tania Demchuk, Senior Environmental Geoscientist for the Ministry of Energy and Mines. Bennett’s Juneau-based schedule ran through Aug. 26; he spent Aug. 27 in Ketchikan. On Aug. 27, Bennett, Mallott, Hamilton, Morel, Petrie and Blake flew to Ketchikan to meet with the Ketchikan Indian Community representatives, have lunch with the Chamber of Commerce, and meet with the Alaska Miners Association. Other representatives will tour Greens Creek mine on Admiralty Island. Contact Juneau Empire outdoors writer Mary Catharine Martin at [email protected]

Concerned Alaska Native, First Nation representatives attend Seabridge Gold annual meeting

Alaska Native and First Nation representatives had some questions for a Canadian mining company at its annual meeting, concerned about a project’s potential effects on their ancestral lands. United Tribal Transboundary Mining Work Group representative Fred Olsen Jr., who is also tribal vice-president of the Organized Village of Kasaan, and Annita McPhee, former president of the Tahltan First Nation in British Columbia, this week attended the annual meeting of Seabridge Gold, the parent company of Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell. KSM is a large mine planned in the Unuk River watershed in British Columbia, which empties into Southeast Alaska. With Olsen and McPhee was Bonnie Gestring of Earthworks, an environmental organization that recently co-released, with Salmon Beyond Borders, a report questioning the investment value of the mine. On behalf of the tribal work group, Olsen asked the company about its support of an International Joint Commission review. Many Southeast Alaskans, including municipalities, Alaska’s congressional representatives, and tribes, have been pushing for an IJC review under the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty for more than a year. “We’ve come to Toronto to ask Seabridge whether it will publicly support an International Joint commission review,” Olsen said in a press release. “We’re deeply concerned about the unprecedented downstream risks to our people, who rely on the health of our rivers for their livelihoods. As with the Pebble Mine, the long-term risks outweigh the rewards.” “Seabridge stated that it would not support an IJC review, despite requests by Alaska Tribes, the capital City of Juneau and others,” Gestring wrote in an email after the meeting. “It said that the company had held numerous meetings, and provided plenty of opportunity for comment during the Canadian permitting process. It’s disappointing that Seabridge wasn’t responsive to this request, particularly after the Mount Polley catastrophe. Mining companies need to do more than make promises that it isn’t ‘business as usual.’” McPhee, Gestring said, requested the company adhere to the recommendations of the independent Mount Polley Review Panel. The panel earlier this year produced a report on the Aug. 8, 2014 tailings dam failure at Mount Polley. It said that the tailings dam techniques most BC mines use are outdated, and that they should begin to use dry-stack tailings, the same process that Greens Creek Mine on Admiralty Island uses. “Multiple failure modes” were in progress at the mine at the time it failed, the report said, adding that given past BC’s tailings dam history, at least two can be expected to fail in some way every ten years. “…the company said that it is undertaking an independent expert panel review of the tailings dam design at KSM, but the company still proposes to use submerged tailings in a portion of the tailings dam. It contends that dry stack tailings aren’t feasible,” Gestring wrote. “We remain concerned about the continued use of submerged tailings, considering the expert panel’s strong recommendation that the industry needs to shift from submerged tailings to dry tailings to reduce the potential for long-term catastrophic failures.” A Seabridge Gold representative did not return a call as of press time.

Prince of Wales Island wolf population plummets

JUNEAU — Prince of Wales Island’s population of wolves declined 60 percent in just one year, according to a recent U.S. Forest Service briefing paper, leaving only 60 wolves on the island and 89 in the larger game management area — and that’s before last season’s known harvest of 29 wolves. The decline, says the Forest Service briefing paper, “potentially increases the probability of ESA (Endangered Species Act) listing and will almost certainly become a factor in ongoing litigation against timber sales critical to the Tongass Young-growth Transition Strategy (e.g., Big Thorne).” The percentage of female wolves in the area has also declined significantly, from 50 percent in 2013 to 25 percent in 2014’s sample population. Regional Supervisor for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Division of Wildlife Conservation Ryan Scott said ADF&G, which is partnering with the USFS on the study, is discussing the estimate’s implications and its impact on the harvest season, but has not yet made any decisions. Scott pointed out that the population estimate was arrived at by using hair traps to DNA sample a northern area of POW. Those estimates were then extrapolated to the rest of the island. “When we do that, there’s the assumption that everything — the density — is the same, and that’s probably not true. Things are different,” he said. USFS biologist and Tongass Wildlife Program Manager Brian Logan said the project itself, which used both the 2013 and 2014 estimates, was aimed at establishing a way to estimate wolf population numbers. In that, he said, it was a success. “In a dense rainforest, it can be difficult to count wolves,” he said. “Looking at this hair-snaring technique — we feel really good about the results of that.” Just the same, he said he would call the fall in population estimates an “apparent decline.” Though 89 wolves is the estimate, the range of wolves estimated is between 50 and 159. The population in 1994 was estimated at 356, and in 2003 at 345, using other population measurement techniques. In 2013, the wolves were estimated to have a population of 221, with a range between 130 and 378. “Now we have a high end (159 in 2014) that’s barely larger than the low end (130 in 2013),” Larry Edwards, of Greenpeace’s Sitka Field Office, said. “Fifty — in terms of genetics, that’s a bottleneck.” Greenpeace, the Center for Biological Diversity, and their partners have petitioned for an endangered species listing for the wolves on POW and its nearby islands, saying the population is genetically distinct from other Alexander Archipelago wolves, “which are themselves a subspecies of gray wolves.” Both matters are debated — geneticist Matt Cronin has said Southeast Alaska’s wolves are not genetically distinct; other geneticists look at the same data and say they are. Harvest Last year, the Board of Game reduced the quota in GMU2 from 30 percent of the estimated population to 20 percent. “There’s already been a fairly significant reduction there,” Scott said. “Nothing is off the table” as far as the harvest season, Scott said, but added that he does think there is enough of a population to allow some form of harvest. At the moment, Greenpeace and its partners are unsure what action they’ll be taking, but will likely be requesting that ADF&G Commissioner Sam Cotten stop the season via an emergency order, Edwards said. They’ll also be acting on a federal level. The federal subsistence harvest season starts Sept. 1; the state season starts Dec. 1. “The vast majority” of those hunting and trapping wolves in that management area are federally qualified to do so, the briefing paper states. Both seasons end March 31. Cause of decline Scott said researchers are unsure what’s caused the decline. “The bottom line is we don’t know what it is right now,” he said. He mentioned disease and a reduction of prey as potential causes, but added there’s no sign the wolves are suffering from disease, and deer numbers are high. Natural factors leading to death “are not indicated in the observed wolf population decline,” the briefing paper states. Illegal take on POW has at times been estimated to be very high. “Illegal take may at times equal the legal harvest (on POW),” wrote retired ADF&G biologist Dave Person and fellow scientist Todd J. Brinkman in a 2013 publication. Person was then the lead biologist studying POW’s wolves. “I don’t know that it is or that it isn’t,” Scott said when asked if illegal trapping and hunting was a potential cause for the decline. “In previous studies, it’s been indicated as a significant concern. I like to think that it’s not, but I can’t say for sure one way or another.” Edwards said the cause, to him, is clear — “human caused mortality.” “It’s directly related to the density of logging roads on the island,” he said. “The mortality is both from the regulated season that Fish and Game conducts, as well as illegal take.” The question of why the wolves’ population has declined, Logan said, is what researchers will tackle next. “We do know that a number of factors affect wildlife populations. Wolves, like any other animal, are affected by trapping, natural mortality, nutritional requirements and weather,” he said. “Can I point my finger at any specific cause? No, I can’t. Over the years, there can be varying levels of trapping pressure, especially in areas we have roaded access, but that’s not what this project is intended to answer. Those kinds of questions are what I would consider to be the next step.” “Even with 89 wolves, I think we can provide some harvest opportunity there,” Scott said, adding that he thinks of POW’s wolves as not genetically distinct from others in Southeast Alaska. “There’s multiple user groups — not just sport users. There are subsistence users for wolves, as well. Is (the estimate) going to be part of the conversation? Absolutely.”

Pinks to lead Southeast salmon harvest again in 2015

JUNEAU — In 2013, pink salmon returns in Southeast Alaska broke records, leading commercial fishermen to catch more than 100 million salmon from all five species for the first time ever in the region. Biologists don’t expect this year to be quite as stellar, but pinks, which tend to run in odd year cycles, are expected to carry the year for commercial fishermen once again. For Southeast Alaska, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game predicts a total harvest of a little more than 1.1 million sockeye, 2.9 million coho, 58 million pinks, and a little less than 9.3 million chum (including 7.4 million hatchery chum) for a total, excluding chinook, of 71.3 million salmon caught in Southeast Alaska. In Alaska as a whole, it predicts 54,000 chinook (excluding Southeast and Yakutat; as of press time the Pacific Salmon Commission hadn’t yet published the area’s quota), about 58.8 million sockeye, 4.9 million coho, 140.3 million pinks, and 17.2 million chum.  Forecasting The ADF&G report stated that forecasting the 2015 pink salmon harvest in Southeast “was made exceptionally challenging” by the banner 2013 catch for the fish. That year’s catch of 95 million pink salmon was “nearly 20 million fish higher than any other pink salmon harvest since commercial fisheries began in Southeast Alaska in the late 1800s,” the report said. “The 2013 harvest was way outside the range of anything we’d seen before,” said Ketchikan-based regional research biologist Steve Heinl, who contributed to the forecast. “That gives us a lot of uncertainty about using our information to come up with a forecast … sometimes it’s prudent to be cautious.” In 1999, pinks also had a very big run, leading to the previous record, he said, but 2001 did not have a run close to that. “Big huge runs like that are sometimes a bit of an anomaly,” he said. “Forecasting is a sucker’s game.” In general, he said, people have a poor track record predicting pink salmon runs. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Auke Bay Laboratories’ and fish biologist Joe Orsi’s counts of juvenile salmon have “greatly improved our ability to forecast pink salmon harvests in Southeast Alaska,” Heinl and Pink and Chum Salmon Project Leader Andy Piston wrote in the report. The 10-year average harvest of pinks is 41 million, they said. “A harvest of (the predicted) magnitude would be in the top 10 harvests since 1960,” they wrote. The department doesn’t make a formal forecast for chum salmon, as the majority of chum caught in Southeast Alaska start their lives in hatcheries, Heinl said. “One thing we have noted is the last couple of years, chum salmon runs have been below normal,” he said. “They didn’t meet escapement objectives in some parts of Southeast.” Outlooks for the Stikine and Taku rivers, both of which, as transboundary rivers, are managed separately from the overall chinook quota in Southeast, are average to a little worse than average, biologists said.  Taku Juneau Area Management Biologist for commercial fisheries Dave Harris said the Taku’s chinook forecast is for 26,100 king salmon, which is “pretty similar to what we saw last year, but definitely on the low side of things.” This is a low production period for kings in the Taku, he said, with the 10-year average at 34,900 fish. They predict sockeye will have an above average return of 216,000 on the Taku; an average return is 175,000. They’re predicting a run size of 158,000 for coho, which is below the long term average but similar to the last 10 years. They don’t generally make forecasts for pink and chum on the Taku River.  Stikine Troy Thynes, Petersburg/Wrangell area management biologist for commercial fisheries, said chinook predictions for the Stikine River are 30,200 fish, which is higher than the last two years, lower than the forecast in 2012, and generally in keeping with recent patterns. “It’s kind of a mediocre forecast,” he said. The preseason forecast for sockeye is 171,200, he said, which is better than it’s been since 2011, but just a little below the 10-year average. That average, he said, includes a few big years. The Stikine River supports two gillnet fisheries; the chinook forecast is enough for a bit of allowable catch, but not a commercial fishery, he said. There is no official forecast for coho salmon, which are also managed under the treaty provisions, he said. “As we get in-season information and forecasts, we’ll base any management decisions (off of that),” he said. The forecasts for chinook and sockeye should be coming in toward the end of May.  Outlook for local sport fishermen The Pacific Fishery Management Council is deciding chinook quotas this week, though their website states “the news is good, with strong stocks up and down the coast.” NOAA Fisheries Science Center’s predictions are a little more muted, saying warm waters out in the Gulf of Alaska could negatively affect both returning chinook and coho salmon. Daniel Teske, Juneau area management biologist for the Division of Sport Fish, said right now anglers are allowed a bag and possession limit of one king salmon 28 inches or longer. That number, noted in an April 1 news release, is because of poor Taku River king salmon production. As most sport fishermen know, the department has three king salmon hatchery release sites in the Juneau area — Douglas Island Pink and Chum, or DIPAC; Fish Creek on North Douglas and at the mouth of Auke Creek. At those designated terminals in June, July and August, anglers will be able to catch four king salmon of any size. Those regulations will come out in an emergency order and news release in late May, Teske said. Teske expects the coho return to be “fairly decent” both for wild and hatchery salmon.
Subscribe to RSS - Mary C Martin