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Alaska is fully engaged in transboundary water, mining issues

  • Author: Corri Feige
    | Opinion
    , Doug Vincent-Lang
    | Opinion
    , Jason Brune
    | Opinion
  • Updated: July 14, 2019
  • Published July 14, 2019

A tailings pond and a disused water treatment plant can be seen in this 2013 photo at the Tulsequah Chief Mine site about 40 miles northeast of Juneau. (Rivers Without Borders)

As leaders of Alaska’s state resource agencies, we want to assure everyone who shares our desire for healthy lands, waters, fish and economies that Alaska remains committed to maintaining both high water quality standards and responsible mineral development in the transboundary waters between Southeast Alaska and British Columbia.

Both state and federal legislators have expressed concerns about this issue recently, some by writing to encourage Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy to keep Alaska involved with British Columbia’s provincial government on transboundary issues, under a Memorandum of Understanding and Cooperation, or MOU, signed by former Gov. Bill Walker and former Britih Columbia Premier Christy Clark in 2015.

In his May 6 response to state legislators, the governor confirmed that this MOU remains in effect. Under the MOU, the three of us serve on the Transboundary Bilateral Working Group. Together with our Canadian counterparts from the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources, and the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategies, we will continue to work collaboratively on issues relating to transboundary waters.

Recently, the working group met by teleconference to forge new relationships, review the mission and plans, and reaffirm the joint commitment to transboundary water protection. We will be meeting again later this year.

We recognize the importance of healthy river systems to the environmental, social and economic sustainability of Alaska’s communities, citizens and industries. We share these interests with Alaska Natives, local, state and federal lawmakers, and representatives of both the fishing and mining industries. And we have the governor’s full support as we continue meaningful engagement with our Canadian neighbors to ensure Alaska’s interests are protected.

This cooperation is essential, as transboundary water issues can be complex. For example, claims about the number of transboundary mines vary greatly depending on the stage of development and who is counting. There is a big difference between a mineral project in early exploration, and one in its permitting, construction, operations or restoration phase. Very few exploration projects ever become operating mines.

The working group’s statement of cooperation also recognizes the importance of monitoring water quality data. So, Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation and British Columbia’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategies recently completed a two-year program to collect, summarize and distribute baseline water quality data on the Taku, Stikine and Unuk watersheds. Department of Environmental Conservation staff are currently drafting reports summarizing this work.

Biologists with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game also keep careful watch on salmon returns to our transboundary rivers, working closely with Canadian fisheries executives to monitor salmon escapements and harvests as well as critical spawning and rearing areas. This information is used by Canadian and Alaskan officials alike to ensure sustainability of the runs and their fisheries through the Pacific Salmon Treaty.

There are currently two mines operating in British Columbia’s portion of the transboundary region: Red Chris Mine, which started operating in the Stikine River watershed in 2014, and the Brucejack Mine, which began operating in the Unuk River watershed in 2017. Three proposed mines are seeking provincial construction or operations permits: KSM in the Unuk watershed, Galore Creek in the Stikine watershed, and Red Mountain in the Bear Creek watershed near Hyder. The state of Alaska engaged in the provincial permitting process for each of these projects, and will continue to do so for future projects.

In the Taku River watershed, the infamous Tulsequah Chief Mine was shut down in 1957, long before either British Columbia or Alaska enacted modern environmental laws. This site is frequently referenced by Alaska tribal representatives and stakeholders who claim British Columbia cannot properly regulate mining. While there are measurable impacts to Tulsequah River water quality and fish habitats next to the mine site and a mile and a half downstream in the Canadian portion of the river, no such impacts have been detected farther downstream or in the Alaska portion of the river.

Regardless, remediation of the Tulsequah Chief Mine remains the state of Alaska’s highest transboundary water priority and British Columbia is committed to working to address this issue. Alaska’s membership on the Bilateral Working Group gives us an important seat at the table, and we are working with the British Columbia government as it hires consultants to produce a remediation plan for the former mine by the end of the year.

Years of working closely with the province have shown us that Canadian ministries are as committed to responsible development as Alaska’s departments, and we support British Columbia’s efforts to properly and adequately remediate the Tulsequah Chief Mine site.

Alaskans are blessed to live in a land with the abundant natural resources that support a high quality of life and a high standard of living. We take our obligation to protect these resources seriously, and we are proud our state continues to work hand-in-hand with our Canadian neighbors — through both formal agreements between our governments and informal conversations among friends — to find practical solutions to our common challenges of living, working and prospering in the North.

Corri A. Feige is commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.

Doug Vincent-Lang is commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Jason Brune is commissioner of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

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