Alaska and British Columbia cooperate quietly on transboundary issues

AP Photo/Hall Anderson/Ketchikan Daily News

Alaskans concerned with mining in transboundary watersheds often aren’t aware of the cooperation between the state and provincial governments, according to a British Columbia resource official.

“I’m not sure if there’s any elected person in the state of Alaska that really knows the extent to which we engage Alaska on northwest (British Columbia) mining projects and that’s on us. We need to do a better job,” British Columbia Minister of Energy and Mines Bill Bennett said.

Specifically to the proposed Kerr Sulphurets Mitchell, or KSM, porphyry copper-gold mine near the headwaters of the Unuk River drainage in British Columbia, Bennett said the province has held “dozens and dozens” of meetings with representatives from the Alaska and U.S. governments since 2008.

The Unuk River empties into the Pacific between Wrangell and Ketchikan.

Kyle Moselle, a large project coordinator for the Alaska Department of Natural Resources said the Large Mine Permitting Team, or LMPT, system used by the state to coordinate the permitting process between agencies for in-state mines provides a “plug and play” model in discussions with Canadian officials about British Columbia mines that could affect transboundary fisheries.

Enacting the LMPT system is done by the mine proponent, he said, which also pays for the resources dedicated to the process. A DNR official is devoted to the project as a coordinator between the departments of Environmental Conservation, Fish and Game, Natural Resources and any others that need to be involved.

Moselle said the coordinator works to assure processes are followed but not unnecessarily duplicated among departments.

“Issues or areas of concern are usually ID’d earlier in the review process and communicated among the agencies and back to the project proponent more effectively,” Moselle said.

He made his comments during a presentation at the Alaska Miners Association conference Nov. 6 in Anchorage.

Federal and provincial Canadian agencies easily fit in to the system when their environmental assessment process is at hand, he said. Agency representatives form a technical working group that allows the state to address any concerns as the environmental assessment plays out. The DNR coordinator then acts as a liaison to consolidate formal comments from the state working group to British Columbia officials, according to Moselle.

It all leads to a “strong working relationship” between the neighboring governments, he said.

The Aug. 4 tailings dam failure at the Mount Polley copper mine in British Columbia’s Fraser River drainage has caused the public to make incorrect assumptions about the province’s environmental requirements, Bennett said.

“The conclusion, for example, that I’ve read in Alaska media that Canada and (British Columbia) have weak environmental standards and poor processes, and we’re under-resourced in our ministries and so forth, that’s just not right; that’s just not correct,” he said.

Such conclusions are the easy answer, according to Bennett.

It’s still unclear as to why the earthen dam failed and poured tailings slurry into nearby waters, he said. Bennett suspects there was an engineering mistake in the initial design or construction, or in the subsequent additions to the dam. An independent investigative team has been formed to get to the bottom of the issue.

“Mount Polley didn’t happen because we have poor processes in my view,” Bennett said. “This will be determined; if I’m wrong the independent panel will point that out.”

British Columbia relies on engineering reports — like all jurisdictions do — to determine if a major infrastructure design like a tailings dam is sound, he said.

Ultimately, Bennett said he wants Alaskans to know that the salmon returning to transboundary rivers are as important to British Columbia as they are to the state.

“The Alaskan fisherman catch those salmon but they spawn in our rivers,” he said. “Our First Nations, what you call Tribes, depend on those salmon. The last thing in the world we would ever do is put at risk the salmon that swim in (British Columbia) rivers.”

KSM

Seabridge Gold Inc. Vice President for Environmental Affairs Brent Murphy said the Kerr Sulphurets Mitchell, or KSM, project his company is proposing would be a combined surface-underground mine typical of other porphyry mines in the region.

KSM would have an initial mine life of 52 years.

While the mine site is 22 miles upstream of the Canada-Alaska border near the Unuk River, the tailings management facility would be 18 miles away in the Bell Irving River drainage.

The Bell Irving River feeds the Nass River, which flows south of Alaska and is not a transboundary watershed.

Ore from the mine would be sent to the tailings facility via a conveyor and tunnel system and processed there, Murphy said.

“All water that comes in contact with the proposed mining operations will be retained by a proposed water storage dam,” he said.

After going through a treatment plant the mine water would also go through the 18-mile tunnel to the tailings pond.

Murphy said mine dams are being “rightly” scrutinized after the Mount Polley incident and that KSM’s designs have been reviewed by experts from British Columbia, the Canadian government, the State of Alaska and First Nations.

“Following the Mount Polley situation, Seabridge, on its own initiative, also committed to establish an independent third-party review panel to actively participate in the future design, construction, operation and maintenance of the dams throughout the life of the KSM project,” Murphy said.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
11/18/2016 - 9:50am