Environment: Canadian mine, energy developments stir trans-border unease in Alaska

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Ecosystems in a transboundary region are at issue in a series of upcoming meetings in Alaska. Map courtesy Rivers Without Borders.

Alaska communities seek international review of Canadian projects that will affect their rivers

Staff Report

FRISCO — Mining and energy development in western Canada is making some Alaskans uneasy, as they eye potential impacts to pristine salmon streams in the region.

Citing a bilateral environmental treaty, activists this week will meet with British Columbia’s Minister of Energy and Mines, Bill Bennett, when he visits Juneau and will ask him to support an international review of mine developments in northwest B.C.

The environmental and community advocates said an international review is the best way to develop specific, binding commitments to ensure clean water, salmon, jobs and traditional and customary practices are not harmed by mine development in British Columbia.

At the same time, Alaskans are calling on Secretary of State John Kerry to take action under the Boundary Waters Treaty, which bars either country from polluting shared waters, and convene an international review by a joint commission to scrutinize potential risks to Alaska’s clean water, fish and wildlife, fishing, tourism, and indigenous communities.

The environmental coalition in Alaska said that, so far, Bennett has largely dismissed Alaska’s concerns. In a recent news article, Bennett said, “We are far more careful in British Columbia than it would seem to many people in Southeast Alaska.” He continued: “People of Southeast Alaska don’t know a lot about how we do business in B.C.”

Bennett has so far offered what is essentially a “trust us–we’ll take care of it” attitude. This is unacceptable to the many Alaskans who rely on the Taku, Stikine and Unuk Rivers for their livelihoods.

“It’s great that Minister Bennett is coming to Southeast Alaska, but I want him to recognize this is an international problem requiring an international solution under the Boundary Waters Treaty,” said Heather Hardcastle, a commercial fisherman from Juneau who coordinates Salmon Beyond Borders, a campaign driven by a large and diverse group of Americans and Canadians.

“Alaska is not merely another participant in B.C.’s domestic permitting process, but is instead the downstream sovereign state entitled to protections under the Treaty. We don’t need more information and talk. We need enforceable measures and financial guarantees to protect our interests,” Hardcastle said.

“We know very well how B.C. operates. Look at the Mount Polley mine catastrophe last year. Experts who investigated the Mount Polley disaster recommended that B.C. stop permitting mines with wet tailings impoundments. Yet, Minister Bennett is disregarding those recommendations and is allowing mines like Red Chris and KSM to go forward with a risky waste containment system similar to Mount Polley’s,” said Hardcastle. “The B.C. permitting process just isn’t designed to protect Alaska interests.”

Bennett is expected to arrive in Juneau on Monday, August 24, and spend four days in Alaska’s capital city, meeting with Alaska state officials, tribal leaders, fishermen and others.

“Minister Bennett doesn’t give us much credit for understanding the issues. It is he who needs to grasp just how concerned Alaskans and others are with the pace and size of large-scale mining development in the headwaters of some of our most productive rivers,” said Dale Kelley, executive director of Alaska Trollers Association, a trade organization representing hundreds of commercial salmon trollers.

“Bennett’s public comments thus far have been dismissive and fail to give fishermen confidence that he intends to address those concerns. Wild salmon are a matter of global concern. The State of Alaska must work directly with the State Department to develop meaningful agreements and enforce international law,” Kelley said.

Secretary of State John Kerry is coming to Alaska later this month to attend a climate change summit in Anchorage, so the Alaskan coalition wants to show him how their lives are centered on clean water and salmon.

“Kerry must take a hard look at what’s happening along Alaska’s border, and I hope he’ll take the time to visit Southeast Alaska. We’ve been here since time immemorial and these fast-paced developments are threatening our customary and traditional practices and communities and we have had no real say in their development,” said Carrie James, co-chair of the United Tribal Transboundary Mining Work Group, and treasurer of Ketchikan Indian Community.

“I urge Gov. Walker and Lt. Gov. Mallott to firmly convey to Sec. Kerry that the Boundary Waters Treaty must be enforced and the International Joint Commission must be engaged. We’re skeptical that an MOU will be strong enough to protect Alaska’s interests, especially given what we know about the agreements B.C. has made with Montana, Idaho and Washington,” said Kevin Maier, a fly fishing guide with Juneau-based Bear Creek Outfitters.

“We don’t need an agreement about more conversations, while B.C. continues to approve and rush these mines into production at breakneck speed. We need specific financial assurances that mines will be monitored over the long term, that accidents will be cleaned up, and that any damage to Alaska will be paid for,” Maier said.

“At a bare minimum, B.C. should be willing to grant us the same protections and rights it is asking of Alberta. Accepting anything less than a binding international agreement that includes a mechanism that guarantees financial compensation and security for Alaskans would be too little, too soon,” said Chris Zimmer, Alaska director of Rivers Without Borders.

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