BC government takes steps toward watershed cleanup

Canadian providence releases cleanup, closure plan for Tulsequah Chief mine

More than half a century after the Tulsequah Chief Mine shut down, while continuing to leach acidic runoff into the transboundary Taku River watershed, British Columbia’s government has committed to a long-term plan to halt the pollution.

Officials with B.C.’s Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources said in mid-August that they have committed $1.575 million for site preparation and studies to support early reclamation work at the mine site. Provincial officials are working in partnership with the Taku River Tlingit First Nation (TRTFN) on a summer program that will help inform subsequent remediation steps.

The funding will cover aquatics monitoring program, an interim water treatment assessment and physical work at the site or this summer, as well as a LiDAR survey. LiDAR is a remote sensing technology that measures distance by illuminating a target with a laser and analyzing the reflected light. The physical work will include initiation of bridge, road and airstrip repairs as well as the establishment of an interim camp to house workers at the site, B.C. officials said.

Work on bridge and road repair is to begin during this field season. The aquatic program LiDAR and water treatment assessment work is planned to be completed by the end of March 2021.

B.C. officials said that the Alaska Department of Natural Resources has been involved in the review of the closure and reclamation plan and that they would continue to work closely with DNR on work at the site.

B.C. Minister of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources Bruce Ralston said in a statement that the environmental issues at the Tulsequah Chief Mine site had gone on too long and he was pleased to have a plan in place now to start working on reclaiming the site.

Meanwhile the site is still in a receivership process before the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, BC officials noted.

The Taku River, a major producer of wild salmon, is of significant economic and culture importance to indigenous tribes on both sides of the border, as well as commercial, sport and subsistence fishermen and the tourism industry. The Douglas Indian Association is a federally recognized tribe in Alaska and the Taku River Tlingit First Nation is based in Atlin, B.C. Both have traditional territory within the watershed, and both have for years called for cleanup of the Tulsequah Chief mine.

The mine, in operation only from 1951 to 1957, lies on a site next to the Tulsequah River in northern B.C. within the territory of the TRTFN.

To Alaska’s indigenous people, the long-term efforts of getting a plan to stop the acidic drainage into the Taku River watershed has been frustrating, said Fred Olsen Jr., executive director of the Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission (SEITC).

“The Tulsequah Chief is a cautionary tale,” Olsen said. “It highlights boom and bust. It highlights antiquated laws. They are so old. If something happens, who pays? The taxpayers.”

“For decades tribes First Nations, fishermen, businesses and others on both sides of the border have sought to end the Tulsequah Chief threat to Taku River salmon,” he said.

“It’s good to finally see BC make some kind of official progress., but this is what abandoned looks like: taxpayers pay for the planning and cleanup of a toxic site, whenever that happens. Alaskans need to continue watching to make sure the Tulsequah Chief cleanup finally occurs.”

Chris Zimmer of Rivers Without Borders said he is optimistic about B.C.’s commitment to end the acidic drainage, but has some worries too.

“We have some concerns with the closure and cleanup plan and as to how and when the plan will be implemented,” he said. “But between B.C.’s strong demand to end the receivership process and the release of the cleanup and closure plan, there is real momentum toward ending pollution from the Tulsequah Chief.”

Rob Sanderson Jr., SEITC chairman, said he too was encouraged by the provincial government’s latest moves.

“Way back in 2015, B.C.’s Minister of Energy and Mines said all the right things when he visited the mine site and promised to clean it up, yet we still have a mess,” he said. “It’s now encouraging to see B.C. starting to follow up on that promise. A successful mine cleanup here could build trust and good will between Alaska and BC to address other transboundary mine issues.”

Alaska environmental entities who have worked for year to stop the acidic leakage from the mine said the receivership process has hindered B.C.’s efforts to take over the mine and close it down. Both B.C. officials and TRTFN told the Toronto court that mine owner Chieftain Metals and its main creditor, West Face Capital, have made little effort to stop acidic drainage, that no credible offers to buy the mine have been received in four years of receivership, and that the ongoing pollution violated provincial and Canadian federal law and mine permits.

Attorneys for the province and TRTFN urged the court to halt the receivership process to allow the provincial government to take full responsibility for mine closure and cleanup. West Face meanwhile asked the court to continue the receivership process so it could continue efforts to sell the mine.

B.C. officials said that responsibility for the mine cannot be fully resolved until the conclusion of the receivership process. Work this summer will proceed regardless of what the receivership decision is, they said. In the case where the receivership continues any money spent will form a lien on the property, they said.

During the four-year-long receivership process, the province has demonstrated a steadfast commitment to continuing to pursue necessary steps toward eventual remediation at the site while working in partnership with the TRTFN and work this summer will help inform subsequent remediation steps, they said.

The court’s decision is expected within a few weeks.