Transboundary issues remain thorny
Alaska groups concerned about the impact of British Columbia mines on Southeast fisheries continue to push for federal intervention in Canada’s project review process.
Leaders from Rivers Without Borders, the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, Salmon Beyond Borders and the United Tribal Transboundary Mining Working Group urged attendees of the Dec. 2 Bureau of Indian Affairs Tribal Providers Conference in Anchorage to sign a petition requesting Secretary of State John Kerry to initiate the International Joint Commission process — the only way the Alaskans can have their voices heard they said.
The commission, or IJC, consists of five commissioners, two from Canada and three from the U.S., who review transboundary watershed issues. The IJC can only get involved when called upon by both governments. In the U.S., the State Department makes that call.
Rivers Without Borders Alaska Campaign Director Chris Zimmer said there are about a dozen proposed mines in British Columbia that his organization is concerned about. However, the Kerr Sulphurets Mitchell, or KSM, gold proposal on the British Columbia side of the Unuk River drainage seems to be top priority for most individuals worried about the issue.
The Unuk empties into the Pacific between Wrangell and Ketchikan and supports runs of all five Pacific salmon species.
KSM received preliminary provincial approval earlier this year. It would be a combined above and below ground mine. KSM’s tailings facility would be 18 miles away in the Upper Nass River drainage, which flows south and is not a transboundary river.
The groups at the BIA conference said their fears are not heard in the Canadian provincial and federal environmental assessments.
“The Canadian oversight process really isn’t design or capable of protecting interests downstream,” Zimmer said.
Transboundary concerns are something that have bound Southeast tribes together like few issues have in the past, he said. The working group is made up of 12 of the region’s 19 tribes, according to Zimmer.
Carrie James of the United Tribal Transboundary Mining Working Group said it was formed from in March from a two-day Transboundary Mining Summit held in Craig, which brought together tribes, state agencies and others to discuss cross-border development.
“It was during this time that the tribes decided our best approach was to unite and find our strength in numbers to address the transboundary issues,” James said.
The working group sent formal comment letters regarding KSM to Canadian agencies and also requested the U.S. Agriculture and Interior departments, Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration engage the Canadian governments.
“Alaska as a whole is under attack; our watersheds are under attack and we must band together to protect our economy and our way of life,” James said.
After the Mount Polley tailings dam failure in August, Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich sent letters to Kerry asking him to urge Canada to initiate a “panel review” of KSM. Neither specifically requested the activation of the IJC.
Zimmer said mines proposed today are of particular concern because changes to Canadian review processes have reduced environmental protections to speed up permitting.
Alaska Department of Natural Resources Large Project Coordinator Kyle Moselle said British Columbia and federal Canada water quality standards are “quite robust” and on par with Alaska’s requirements.
“We measure the same constituents. They’re more stringent on a few constituents than we are and we’re more stringent on a few compared to them,” Moselle said. “We use the same approach and have defined standards that an effluent into a water body must meet.”
Moselle acts as a liaison between Canada and Alaska on transboundary watershed development projects.
“(The State of Alaska) has a seat at the table. It’s extremely important for us to have a seat at the table,” he said. “The Canadian First Nations and treaty nations are also at that table and that’s why I feel their process is quite robust.”
He said that he understands the concerns Alaskans have about making sure their voices are heard in the provincial and federal reviews of British Columbia mines because he has had the same worry when representing Alaska before U.S. federal agencies.
The comments of all stakeholders are addressed, regardless of their country of origin, Moselle said. Canada’s overall environmental assessment process mirrors the National Environmental Policy Act procedures domestic development projects are subject to, he said.
Moselle and British Columbia Minister of Energy and Mines Bill Bennett said the province struggles with the perception that Alaskans feel they are not being heard when that’s not the case.
In a November interview with the Journal, Bennett said it is the province needs to do a better to highlighting the public involvement portion of mine reviews to quell Alaskans’ fears.
Moselle said the environmental assessment reports for KSM list dozens of comments from stakeholders and how each comment is addressed or mitigated in the mine plan.
“There is significant discussion about the downstream concerns that were raised by Alaskans” in the public comment period, he said.
Moselle set up a Canadian Large Projects page on the state DNR website devoted to shedding light on the work that goes on between the governments regarding British Columbia mines. It also contains links to the comments the state submitted after its review of the KSM proposal.
Part of the problem could be some individuals do not feel they are being heard unless their requests are granted, he said.
In an interview, Zimmer said that despite the state’s best efforts Canadian officials can still do what they want without IJC intervention.
“Canada is fully within their right at the end of the day to say ‘Thanks, but no thanks’” to the State of Alaska, he said.
Moselle said he doesn’t know if IJC intervention is warranted in the case of KSM, but he encouraged Alaskans to take advantage of the public comment periods afforded them by during Canadian mine reviews just as they would for in-state projects.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].