WASHINGTON — Alaska Native and environmental groups on Monday petitioned the Interior Secretary to launch a formal investigation into whether pollution from mines in British Columbia is causing problems for wildlife across the border in Southeast Alaska.
The groups pointed to a 1971 amendment and several international agreements to argue that Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has a duty to launch an investigation into the potential Alaska environmental impacts from six hard-rock mines in British Columbia. And they want the agency to support a joint United States-Canada commission to hash out the issue.
Earthjustice attorney Kenta Tsuda charged the U.S. government with "waiting on the sidelines" as Canadian mine companies barrelled ahead, and Frederick Olsen Jr., chairman of the United Tribal Transboundary Mining Work Group, called the state of affairs "federal under-reach."
This isn't the first time the Interior Department and the Obama administration have heard from Alaskans concerned that pollution from the mines could devastate Southeast Alaska fisheries: The state's U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Congressman Don Young, as well as officials in Gov. Bill Walker's administration, have all raised the issue with officials from Jewell to Secretary of State John Kerry to White House staff.
But the delegation said pleas for White House officials to raise the issue in recent talks with Canada have gone unheard.
Now, Native organizations, Earthjustice and local environmental groups say a 1971 law focused on protecting threatened and endangered species, along with two international conservation agreements, should prompt action from the Obama administration to protect woodland caribou, grizzly bears and salmon.
A spokeswoman for Interior Secretary Sally Jewell didn't have anything to say about the issue, other than confirming that the Interior Department is "aware of the petition and aware of the situation they're raising."
The delegation, in a May letter to Kerry, suggested the Obama administration should first decide whether a commission would be the best route to manage the issue. But they did ask the administration to encourage officials in British Columbia to consider cumulative downstream impacts from multiple mining projects, and suggested various Alaska officials be given a more formal stake in the review process.
The lawmakers also asked for the administration to support federal funding for collecting baseline water quality data in the region, "so that the U.S. can file for damages in the event of mining-related damage from Canadian mines."
The latest concerns detailed by the environmental and Native groups Monday say more than a million new trips down the Cassiar-Stewart Highway could result in more woodland caribou and grizzly bear deaths, and threaten the watersheds in the Taku, Stikine and Unuk river basins.
"These concerns are not unfounded, because there is already a history of Canadian acid mine waste affecting Southeast Alaska," the lawmakers wrote in their May letter to Kerry. "The Tulsequah Chief Mine, which is up the Taku River and southeast of Juneau, has been leaking acidic waste into the Taku River for decades."
The delegation pointed to a concerned report from the auditor general of British Columbia, who wrote that when it came to environmental protection, there were major, widespread planning and compliance gaps in the mining industry there.
Anti-mine advocates say the watersheds generate millions of dollars in salmon, sport fishing and tourism spending.
At issue are six mines, either operational or in planning stages to unearth gold, silver, copper, lead, zinc and molybdenum. The Red Chris Porphyry Copper-Gold Mine began producing in early 2015. Permits are in line for the Tulsequah Chief Mine. The Schaft Creek Mine, the Galore Creek Mine, the KSM Mine and the Brucejack Mine are still in earlier development phases.