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Alaska stops short of calling for Canadian government review of worrisome B.C. mine

JUNEAU -- The Parnell administration is saying more information is needed about the threat posed to Alaska by a huge Canadian mine, but officials didn’t ask the Canadian government outright to review approvals by the pro-mining province of British Columbia.

Alaska fishing, tribal and conservation groups have been outspoken in seeking a more thorough inquiry into approval of the KSM mine by the province, calling for a Canadian federal "panel" review. They've won support from Sens. Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski, who have asked for the U.S. State Department to get involved in protecting Alaska interests, and from Southeast legislators.

The panel review those groups and leaders are seeking would come from the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, something like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Those calls got a new push from within Canada as well after the Mount Polley mine tailings dam breached a few weeks ago, spilling mine waste and spoils into tributaries of the salmon-rich Fraser River in southern British Columbia.

But in comments filed by Wednesday's CEAA deadline, Alaska noted only that there were unanswered questions that it would like to see answered.

Among those are concerns about dam safety, inadequate water treatment and how bonding to ensure long-term care and maintenance activities would work.

The state's letter also raised the issue of "cumulative impacts," echoing concerns raised by environmental groups that numerous mines already permitted or under construction might together damage Alaska waters.

The state's comments, in a letter from Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Joe Balash, Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Larry Hartig and Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell, didn't request a specific process to answer those questions.

They said that if those questions could be answered with a panel review, either that process or another sought by the Canadian Minister of Environment should be used.  

Brian Lynch of the Petersburg Vessel Owners Association said he hoped the letter would result in the KSM mine getting the thorough outside look that the province didn't give it. A panel review is the only way to get those answers, he said.

"I would hope the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency would take (the letter) as being essentially saying, 'You need a panel review on this,' " he said.

"There's too many unanswered questions that probably a panel review would be the only way you could answer those questions," Lynch said.

But Ed Fogels of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources said a panel review wasn't the best way to go.

"A panel review we don't think is going to answer all the questions everyone wants answered," he said.

The province itself will fully answer those questions when it reviews the mine project's design before it is built, Fogels said.

"That's where we intend to jump in and really make sure we are comfortable with the level of design on those facilities, and the panel review won't do that," he said.

But Chris Zimmer of Rivers Without Borders said a panel review is needed for an outside look at the KSM project and that the alternative that the state's letter mentioned doesn't exist in Canadian law.

"There really isn't another way; there's the panel review or they can approve the mine," Zimmer said.

The state's letter did say that Alaskans who had called for a panel review have "important and serious concerns."

Seabridge Gold is developing the Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell ore deposit, not far from the small Alaska community of Hyder. Its huge mine tailings impoundment dam has Alaskans worried about downstream rivers. The mine is in the Unuk River watershed, while the tailings storage is in the neighboring Nass River watershed.

Both Canadian and Alaska fishermen rely on salmon from those rivers, and some fisheries in the area are jointly managed.

Southeast Alaska Conservation Council's Guy Archibald said he was surprised that Alaska didn't insist on a panel review but said he thought one would happen anyway at the insistence of Canadian citizens.

He questioned whether the fate of the proposed Pebble mine played a role in Alaska's reluctance to support a panel review.

"The state of Alaska, obviously the executive branch, has supported the Pebble Project; there's a little reluctance on the state's part to be super critical of mining on the British Columbia side, and then turn around and support a major mine that would have significant impacts on the U.S. side," he said.

But Fogels called the KSM matter and concerns about the Environmental Protection Agency in Alaska "totally different issues."

"Alaska's been reluctant to have EPA come in and shut down our use of 8 million acres of statehood land entitlement," he said, and that's unrelated to the Pebble Project itself.

Other fishing groups also weighed in by the Wednesday deadline, including the Seafood Producers Co-op, which noted that it was the nation's oldest and largest cooperative owned by fishermen. It called for a panel review to make sure that the fish runs on which their livelihoods depend are protected.

"What our marketing program reveals is that customers choose wild Alaska seafood for a variety of attributes, but high on their list is the fact that our products are sustainably harvested and come from a pristine environment," wrote Tom McLaughlin, the co-op's  president and CEO.