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Environment

British Columbia officials try to smooth over mine dispute during Juneau trip

  • Author: Pat Forgey
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published August 26, 2015

JUNEAU -- Top British Columbia mining regulators this week have been trying to improve relations with Alaska that have been strained by several controversial mines and are even talking about cleanup of a British Columbia mine that's been polluting Taku Inlet for decades.

Provincial Minister of Energy and Mines William Bennett said Wednesday in Juneau that could mean an agreement to give Alaska more of a say in what happens over the border, and that Alaska should have a larger role.

The state's bigger role might include permitting new mines and monitoring operating mines.

"I think it's fair to say that Alaska doesn't have a lot of access to that information," Bennett said.

But while the minister was offering to sign a memorandum of agreement or understanding with Alaska, Alaskans in Juneau were demanding more.

John Morris, a member of the Juneau-based Douglas Indian Association's tribal council, described a memorandum of understanding as "nothing more than a formal handshake" and said it would be better to use the Boundary Waters Treaty to see that Alaska's interests were protected.

That was also the message to the administration of Gov. Bill Walker and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott from a coalition of environmental groups, fishing organizations and tribal bodies that held a protest at Alaska's Capitol Wednesday.

The groups demanded that the administration get "extra tough" on British Columbia mines.

To drive the point home, they presented the state leaders with more than 100 pairs of Xtratufs, the iconic rubber boots, collected from Southeast towns they say are threatened by proposed Canadian mines.

Sitka's Edie Leghorn urged the treaty be invoked, likely over the objections of British Columbia.

"These mines are an international problem, and as such they require an international solution," she said.

Mallott said recently that he'd been rebuffed in his attempts to get the U.S. State Department to take up the issue of the Boundary Waters Treaty to protect Alaska waters, but was continuing his efforts. He's even seeking a meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry to raise the concerns, but has acknowledged that's unlikely to happen.

But while Bennett might not support an expanded role of the two national governments in the Alaska-British Columbia issue, during his multiday visit to Alaska he sounded conciliatory and cooperative, especially when talking about an old mine in the Juneau area that's long been a point of contention.

Since closing in the 1950s, the Tulsequah Chief mine a few miles east of Juneau has been draining acidic water into the Tulsequah River and on into the Taku River, a prime salmon spawning habitat.

The mine and most of the Taku River are in Canada, but the river reaches the ocean at Taku Inlet in Juneau.

Bennett Wednesday sounded embarrassed about how British Columbia has dealt with that polluting mine.

"The Tulsequah Chief mine site I consider a vulnerability in terms of B.C. coming to Alaska and developing the kind of understanding and positive relationship that we want, and I know Alaska wants," Bennett said Wednesday.

Bennett flew over the mine Monday and expressed surprise at how close it was to Juneau. He then visited Taku Inlet by boat.

A new company, Chieftain Metals, wants to reopen the Tulsequah Chief and export its ore through Taku Inlet. It also owns a water treatment facility at the site that it is required to operate.

But Chieftain appears to be running out of money and has shut down the water treatment plant. Its stock was recently trading at about two cents a share.

Bennett said the acidic discharge did not appear harmful, but said it shouldn't be happening.

"It's up to us, frankly -- British Columbia -- to work with the company to get that water treatment plant operating," he said.

British Columbia regulators, who work for Bennett, have issued notices of violation because of the ongoing pollution, but have taken no other action, he said.

Chris Zimmer of Rivers Without Borders disputed the safety of the discharge. Trout placed in a bucket of the mine discharge die within two hours, he said, but more needs to be known about its toxicity when diluted.

But Bennett said he'll take action even before additional studies are done and that action will go beyond the notices of violation.

"I certainly have taken some action on that and will be taking further action after I get back," he said.

Rep. Sam Kito III, D-Juneau, welcomed the new attention from British Columbia after Bennett's trip up the Taku.

"I'm hoping that visit will actually result in some action by the B.C. authorities to make sure our Taku watershed is as clean as possible," he told the crowd on the Capitol steps Wednesday.

Mallott, who has led a working group on transboundary mining issues for the administration, said he has not given up on use of the Boundary Waters Treaty, but welcomed the Canadian province's willingness to work with Alaska, even without invoking the treaty.

Among the changes Mallott said he envisions are open houses in Alaska during the Canadian permitting process for new mines.

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