OPINION: Protecting Alaska's transboundary rivers from Canadian mine pollution

The Ktunaxa Nation’s success in finally convincing the governments of Canada and the United States to convene the International Joint Commission (IJC) to address the long-standing coal mining pollution in the Elk Valley in southeast British Columbia (B.C.) and Montana is a very big deal. The IJC is provided for and guided by the Boundary Waters Treaty, signed by Canada and the United States in 1909. The IJC studies and recommends solutions to transboundary issues when asked to do so by the national governments.

While this is great news, the Ktunaxa Nation, whose traditional territory includes a large part of the Kootenay region of B.C. and parts of Alberta, Montana, Washington and Idaho, had to work through over a decade of protracted negotiations to receive authorization from the U.S. and Canadian governments to implement an IJC reference and develop a plan to reduce the impacts of the selenium mine pollution long plaguing the Elk and Kootenay watersheds. Taking this long to address an insidious and potentially irreversible and irreparable problem is not something the U.S., Canadian or the B.C. governments should not be proud of.

The Ktunaxa Nation’s success now raises the question of what we need to do here in the Alaska-B.C. transboundary region to prevent the same fate from befalling the rivers that the people of this region depend on for, well, damn near everything. Hopefully, the Ktunaxa’s achievements have provided additional momentum to ramp up awareness of IJC efforts and other federal actions for protection of the Transboundary Rivers (Taku, Stikine, Unuk and Chilkat). Having to go through a similar history as the Ktunaxa Nation to find a solution to reduce toxic mine drainage decades after already contaminating our rivers and damaging our local economies and ways of life is unacceptable. We need to prevent mining pollution from creating a problem in the first place. We should not have to correct the problem years in the future.

While the call for an IJC reference is definitely warranted for the entire transboundary region – I appreciate that Sen. Lisa Murkowski made exactly that suggestion in a Sept. 15, 2023 letter to President Joe Biden – it has become particularly significant for the Unuk River watershed. There are currently four mining projects within less than a 20 mi. radius of each other in various stages of exploration and development that will directly impact the Unuk River. Given that B.C.’s policy and process for the assessment of the cumulative effects of multiple mines within a watershed or geographical region is woefully inadequate, an IJC reference or similar actions may now be the only way to analyze the cumulative impacts of this rapid and extensive mining exploration and development.

The massive Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell (KSM) gold mine project, located within the watersheds of both the Unuk and Nass Rivers is of particular concern. This project is currently undergoing Substantially Started Determination, which is required under the B.C. Environmental Assessment Act for a mine project within ten years after the issuance of a project’s Environmental Assessment Certificate. If the project has been substantially started, the certificate remains in effect for the life of the project. This process poses environmental, cultural, and social risks to downstream communities by fixing the Certificate and project approvals in time, regardless of climate change, new scientific information, or regulatory reforms because it addresses none of these issues. In the case of the KSM project, the data informing the certificate approval is now a decade or more old, and the most recent KSM mine plan is quite different and much larger than what the certificate was originally approved to permit.

Federal involvement is needed now to prevent and stop mine pollution of the Alaska-B.C. transboundary rivers from B.C. mines. Preventing mining pollution from creating a problem in the first place should be the top priority. Having to clean up the mess years in the future, after damage has already occurred, should not even be a consideration.

Brian Lynch is a retired Alaska Department of Fish and Game commercial fisheries biologist currently working for Rivers Without Borders on Canadian mining issues in the Alaska-B.C. transboundary region in Southeast Alaska. He is also a 43-year resident of Southeast Alaska living in Petersburg.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.