Mine waste spill in Canada puts Southeast Alaska fishermen on edge

Pat Forgey

JUNEAU -- A huge mine waste spill in one of Canada's most productive salmon-producing rivers has Alaska fishermen fearing for their livelihoods and sympathizing with their counterparts in Canada.

"This is just heartbreaking," said Katherine Carscallen, who grew up in Dillingham and gillnets in Bristol Bay.

"This is what we've been afraid of happening here, and just seeing it play out in someone else's life the way it could happen here is terrible," she said.

The ground rock from which metals have been extracted are called "tailings," and are often held behind massive earthen dams, often made of tailings themselves, as they were in the recent Canadian spill.

Tailings can submerge salmon spawning habitat, or salmon eggs themselves, in silt and introduce toxic contaminants such as metals and acid runoff into waterways. Tailings dams and water treatment plants attempt to prevent that.   

Carscallen is worried about the proposed Pebble mine in Southwest Alaska, but in Southeast, several mines in watersheds that straddle the Alaska-Canada border also have fishermen on edge.

Heightening those concerns is the fact that the same engineering consultant who designed the tailings dam that breached in Canada is involved in other area projects.

The dam that failed was at Imperial Metals' Mount Polley mine near Williams Lake, British Columbia. The rivers affected are part of the Fraser River watershed, flowing south through Vancouver, where the Fraser empties into the Pacific Ocean.

Imperial Metals has another mine, already given environmental approvals by Canadian officials, called the Red Chris. It is near B.C.'s Dease Lake, already under construction and with transmission lines to power it completed.

KSM mine concerns fishermen

But of most immediate concern to many fishermen and others is the KSM mine, close to Stewart, B.C. Nearby rivers flow into Canadian and Alaskan waters, including into the Misty Fjords National Monument and important salmon spawning habitat.  

The sheer size of that mine, and the danger its huge tailings dam presents, worries Alaska Trollers Association executive director Dale Kelley.

"You are putting at risk this billion-dollar industry that has now fed this economy for over 100 years," she said of the multiple mine plans.

That mine, called the Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell after the ore bodies it will tap, has already won B.C. approval, but now fishing and environmental groups are calling on Canadian environmental officials to do a full "panel" review, similar to an Environmental Impact Statement in the U.S.

Southeast Alaska Conservation Council's Guy Archibald said the threat and sheer scale of the KSM mine merit a tougher look, with outside experts involved.

"There is a high probability that the KSM dam will, at some point in time, significantly impact the fisheries in Southeast Alaska, the communities that depend on those fisheries, and the cultures that surround themselves with fish and wildlife," he said.

"It is something that is going to happen sooner or happen later," Archibald said.

Officials with Seabridge Gold and Imperial Metals were unavailable for comment Thursday or Friday.

The deadline for comment on the KSM permit is Aug. 20. Alaska Department of Natural Resources spokeswoman Elizabeth Bluemink said Alaska intends to submit comments by that deadline.

Pebble group shocked and saddened

In addition to Mount Polley's tailings dam, the Canada-based global consulting firm Knight Piésold Ltd. also designed Pebble's tailings storage dam.

Knight Piésold is trying to distance itself from the disaster.

"Knight Piésold Ltd. informed Imperial Metals that we would not continue as the engineer of record for the Mount Polley Mine on Feb. 10, 2011, and subsequently ceased to perform that role," the company said in a statement issued Friday.

The company said that when it served as engineer of record, the tailings storage facility operated safely, an assertion Knight Piésold said was confirmed by third-party reviews.

At the time of the failure, the Mount Polley dam was holding more water than it had been designed to hold, but other work had been done on the facility after Knight Piésold departed.

"Significant engineering and design changes were made subsequent to our involvement, such that the tailings storage facility can no longer be considered a Knight Piésold Ltd. design," the company's statement said.

Pebble Limited Partnership CEO Tom Collier issued a statement saying his group was shocked and saddened by the Mount Polley disaster, and asserting that Pebble joined the mining industry and the environmental community in calling for a thorough and rigorous study of what caused the breach. But he warned against speculating about causes and defended the Pebble mine.

"We are confident that the designs and operational plans we are considering for a mine at Pebble will be sound and safe. Nevertheless we are eager to incorporate any lessons learned from the Mt. Polley investigation as we move forward," Collier said.

The Pebble Limited Partnership on Friday removed from its website a video touting how mining and fisheries could co-exist. That ad ran for about 30 days in 2010, and focused on the Fraser River as an example of success.

Pebble spokesman Mike Heatwole said that video was taken down "out of deference to the people affected by this incident."

Are safeguards enough?

But fishing groups already question whether mining regulations are tough enough, especially in Canada, where the provincial government and Premier Christy Clark have advocated for more mining.

"The regulatory agencies always assure everybody that all the necessary safeguards are in place," said Brian Lynch, executive director of the Petersburg Vessel Owners Association.

That's what the study report that approved the KSM mine just did, he said.

"The agency concludes, and I'm quoting here, that 'the project is not likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects, taking into account the implementation of mitigation measures in this comprehensive study report,'" he said.

"I would bet you a rather large amount of money that quote was almost exactly (the same) in the study report for the Mount Polley mine, " said Lynch, a retired Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist.

Contact Pat Forgey at pat(at)alaskadispatch.com