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Following B.C. disaster, Alaskans seek tougher review of Canadian mines

Pat Forgey

JUNEAU -- After a massive mine waste spill in Canada, Alaska state and Canadian federal officials are being asked to do more to protect parts of Alaska downstream of several Canadian mines.

"That water belongs to us, too," said Rob Sanderson, a Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indians of Alaska vice-president and co-chair of the United Tribal Transboundary Mining Workshop.

He's most concerned about the Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell mine in Canada east of Ketchikan, which he said is seven times the size of the Mount Polley Mine in interior British Columbia. The breach of the latter mine's tailings dam contaminated the watershed of Canada's important Fraser River.

"If that ain't an eye-opener down at Mount Polley, I don't know what is," Sanderson said of the KSM mine risks.

"Could you imagine if they had a disaster like that at KSM if it was in full production, or even half production, it would be a disaster beyond words," he said.  

But state officials are defending provincial and federal regulators in Canada, and saying their environmental protection measures are as strong as those in Alaska or the United States.

"I believe that the environmental assessment process in Canada are thorough and rigorous," said Kyle Moselle, a large-project permit coordinator for the Alaska Department of Natural Resources. 

He's now reviewing the KSM proposal, and coordinating the state's response to the project. He said the state will submit its comments to the federal Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency by the Aug. 20 deadline. The mine has already received provincial approval.

Tribal, environmental and fishing groups have called on Canada to do a more thorough "panel" review of the KSM Mine.

Moselle said the decision about whether Alaska will join that call will be made by Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Joe Balash, Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell, and Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Larry Hartig.

"The DNR, DEC and Fish and Game commissioners have all received requests from Alaskans to either support or request a panel review. The agencies are considering that, discussing that, but right now I don't have the state's position on that," Moselle said.

Meanwhile, Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski has joined Democratic Sen. Mark Begich in calling for more thorough environmental reviews on the KSM and other Canadian mines, including a panel review for the KSM mine.

“This week’s failure of the Mount Polley tailings pond dam in British Columbia validates fears Alaska fishermen have regarding Canada’s proposed development of large-scale hardrock mineral mines near trans-boundary rivers with Alaska," Begich said in a letter to U.S Secretary of State John Kerry last week.

Begich said he was shocked by the massive Mount Polley waster release, and he and Murkowski are now seeking State Department support for a full panel review.

Chris Zimmer of the environmental group Rivers Without Borders has long been calling for a similar federal review in Canada. The state input during the provincial KSM review was inadequate, Zimmer said.

"When DNR reviewed the KSM Mine they ignored the tailings ponds because they drain into the Nass River (in Canada) and there was an assumption that that's not an Alaska River. But Alaskan fishermen catch a lot of fish from there, and if the Nass fishery declines, Alaska fisheries could be constrained as well," he said.

Sanderson said KSM is not the only Canadian mine of concern. The Red Chris mine is in a watershed that drains into the prolific Stikine River near Wrangell, and the Tulsequah Chief mine is in the Taku River's watershed near Juneau.

Sanderson said he had little confidence in Canadian regulators, but a federal review, could help, especially following Mount Polley.

Canada, he said, would get all the benefits from the KSM and other mines on the Canadian side of the border, but Alaskans bear the risks.

"We take all the risks, everything, our fisheries, our tourism and our traditional culture, our way of life," he said.

DNR's Moselle said that while the review of KSM will only look at that mine, the state will want to make sure a Mount Polley disaster, which he called "tragic," is not repeated.

"We're reviewing KSM on its technical merits, and plan to comment on the final assessment report. Now, specific to Mount Polley, we need to know how that happened and we need to know how BC will prevent a similar thing from happening in the future," Moselle said.