Concerns on transboundary mines heard in House Fisheries

Legislators await response from Dunleavy to protect salmon rich rivers

In nearly two hours of testimony on April 30, the House Fisheries Committee heard many concerns over potential adverse environmental impacts of Canadian mines along transboundary rivers flowing into Southeast Alaska.

“Our goal is to defend an sustain transboundary rivers,” said Jill Weitz, director of Salmon Beyond Borders in Juneau, who was the first to testify. The waterways include the Taku, Stikine and Unuk rivers, sprawled over some 30,000 square miles, an area the size of Ireland, which produce 80 percent of the Chinook salmon in Southeast Alaska, she noted.

Some of those British Columbia mines, including those abandoned, in production and planned, include earthen dams that are considered ticking time bombs that threaten the fisheries and tourism economies, she said.

Salmon Beyond Borders, as well as representatives of communities and tribal groups in Southeast Alaska want more involvement on a federal level, rather than simply between the state of Alaska and providence of British Columbia, leading to full reclamation bonds being confirmed prior to mine development, as is required in Alaska, said Francis Leach, executive, director of United Fishermen of Alaska, which represents 36 commercial fishing groups and hundreds of harvesters.

Other presenters included Ketchikan Gateway Borough Mayor David Landis, Jason Dion, of Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission; independent economist Robyn Allan; research scientist Chris Sergeant of the University of Montana; and Nikki Skuce, project director from the Northern Confluence Initiative in Smithers, B.C.

Landis told the committee that borough officials believe that the state must act on behalf of residents of Southeast Alaska to protect the transboundary waters so vital to their fisheries and tourism economy.

“Alaskans deserve to be confident that there are measures in place to protect these waters,” he said. “There is a need for a binding international framework.”

Dion, in a Powerpoint presentation, noted that the financial assurances sought would require firms to promise or commit funds against their environmental liabilities, either expected or potential. British Columbia’s current approach gives the providence’s chief inspector of mines broad authority to require financial assurance from mining firms against the risk of non-remediation, but in practice, the stringency of financial assurance requirements is often limited, he said. That is largely due to the province’s practice of phasing in financial assurance requirements over the life of the mine, he said.

Findings related to that approach find that when it comes to mine remediation in British Columbia, there is no guarantee that the polluter will pay, he said. If a Mount Polley-like incident were to occur again in British Columbia and the responsible company was bankrupt, a large share of cleanup costs would likely fall to the public, he said.

Among Dion’s recommendations for policy options for the province were to require hard assurance from mining firms both in full and up front, including cash and bonds.

Sergeant said there is a need to improve data quality and transparency and to have independent third-party water monitoring experts, plus cumulative impact analysis.

“There is a need to say what happens when there are five or six (mining) projects happening in the same area,” he said.

“We are simply asking Canada to engage in best practices,” Stutes said, at the conclusion of the meeting. Stutes was among 22 signers of a letter to Gov. Mike Dunleavy on April 9 urging Dunleavy and Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer to defend Alaska’s resources from potential impacts of abandoned, operating and future large-scale mines in British Columbia located near transboundary waterways rich with salmon. To date the governor’s office has not responded to that correspondence.