U.S. State Dept has interest in upstream Canadian mining projects

But the issue is far from resolved says Alaska’s congressional delegation

The U.S. State Department has taken a positive step to recognize the concerns some Alaskans have with upstream Canadian mining projects, but the issue is far from resolved, according to the members of Alaska’s congressional delegation.

Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs Julia Frifield wrote in an Oct. 6 letter to the delegation that the State Department is actively engaged with Canadian officials to protect the watersheds that bisect the U.S.-Canada border along Southeast Alaska.

“The Department of State intends to continue to work, in coordination with other U.S. government agencies, to ascertain what the Canadian federal government is doing to meet U.S. concerns about protecting this sensitive shared ecosystem from potential transboundary pollution during mine development, operation, impoundment design, and post-closure, and through bonding practices,” Frifield wrote.

The Oct. 6 correspondence was in response to a Sept. 8 joint letter from Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young to Secretary of State John Kerry requesting the State Department to establish a formal way for Canadian officials to consult with U.S. federal and state agencies and Alaska Native tribes during Canada’s mine permitting process, similar to the domestic environmental impact statement process. It was the second such letter the delegation has sent to Kerry since May.

Numerous Southeast Alaska environmental, commercial fishing, and Alaska Native groups have called for IJC involvement in recent years, but the commission can only be spurred by a formal call from either the State Department or Canada’s Global Affairs Department. They’re worried about the potential impacts of large metal mines in British Columbia at the heads of large rivers that support commercial and subsistence salmon harvests and flow through the province and Alaska’s panhandle.

The massive 2014 Mount Polley mine tailings dam failure in the Upper Fraser River drainage validated the concerns, the groups contend.

IJC intervention was originally 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.

Alaska’s delegation also asked for, among other things, the State Department to determine whether an International Joint Commission is the appropriate avenue to find out if Canadian mines are using best practices for treating wastewater and mine tailings, “especially in light of the scientific reviews of the causes of the Mt. Polley tailing disposal dam failure,” the delegation wrote.

Frifield noted Canada examining its entirety of its environmental review process; results are expected early next year.

Murkowski said in an Oct. 14 joint delegation release accompanying the letter that she is encouraged that the Obama Administration is taking an elevated interest in the transboundary watershed issue — including an August meeting in Alaska between the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska and a State Department-Environmental Protection Agency contingent.

“That being said, I remain disappointed that the State Department refuses to address our questions and suggestions, such as to consider appointing a special representative for U.S.-Canada transboundary issues,” Murkowski said. “And it is unacceptable that Secretary Kerry has yet to meet directly with Alaskans on such a hugely important issue. The State Department’s response is a step in the right direction, but we still have a long way to go until Alaskans’ concerns are adequately addressed.”

The State Department was also pleased to learn Congress may provide funding for baseline water quality monitoring in Southeast watersheds such as the Stikine, Taku and Unuk rivers, which has been a priority of the Alaska lawmakers.

Young said the state and country share an interest in developing their natural resources, but open lines of communication when development in one could impact the other.

“Ongoing and proposed mining activities in Canada have brought tremendous concerns to the people of Southeast Alaska -- specifically with the Tlingit and Haida people – which is why I have always engaged with the delegation to prioritize and facilitate outreach between all parties involved. Although I am pleased to hear about certain progress being made to implement portions of the memorandum of understanding and to address the concerns of Alaskans, I still believe there’s much work to be done.”

Sen. Sullivan concurred, saying, “I am glad the Department of State and other Administration officials have finally initiated steps to engage key stakeholders as well as the governments of Canada and British Columbia on these pressing transboundary water issues. Yet, further progress is necessary to address the questions the delegation and Alaskan stakeholders have raised.”

Also on Oct. 6, the date on the State Department letter, Alaska Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott signed a Statement of Cooperation with British Columbia to form a working group of relevant state departments and provincial ministries to improve stakeholder involvement in transboundary issues, an agreement the State Department was anticipating, according to Frifield.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

10/17/2016 - 4:48pm