Work continues on Tulsequah Chief mine cleanup

SEITC wants a halt on new mine permits pending further decisions on Tulsequah Chief reclamation

Runoff from the Tulsequah Chief mine, southwest of Atlin, B.C. flows into the Tulsequah River, 10 kilometers upstream from its confluence with the Taku River, which flows into Southeast Alaska. Photo courtesy of Colin Arisman/Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission

Environmental entities and the Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission say they are cautiously encouraged by recent steps to address the toxic acid drainage from the Tulsequah Chief mine, which has continued for decades after the mine ceased operations.

Still, there is much to be done to ensure that the Tulsequah Chief in northwest British Columbia is closed down and cleaned up, and to protect the lower Taku River from potential negative impacts of additional mining.

The Narwhal, a British Columbia environmental publication, reported early in June that the mining firm Teck Resources has donated over $1.5 million to help finance reclamation of the Tulsequah Chief. The article noted that, prior to that donation, the B.C. Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation had only $160,000 left to use for reclamation efforts.

“It’s also good to see Teck Resources, a legally responsible party, begin to contribute to the cleanup,” said Chris Zimmer of Rivers Without Borders. “But there is still a lot to do to ensure the Tulsequah Chief is closed down and cleaned up. We need our state and federal leaders to ensure B.C. provides a clear and detailed cleanup and closure plan, a plan for fully funding the cleanup, closure and long-term monitoring, a commitment from B.C. to ensure the lower Taku River area doesn’t face continued threats from mining, and a seat at the table for Alaskans,”

Legal issues surrounding cleanup of the mine, which hasn’t operated for decades, are complex.

Since the mine began operations in 1951, it has had three owners. Cominco – now Teck Resources – Redfern Resources and Chieftain Metals. Redfern went out of business in 2009 and Chieftain is in bankruptcy proceedings, leaving Teck Resources as the sole remaining responsible party with the resources to pay for both the cleanup and closure. Teck, one of Canada’s leading mining companies, has operations and projects in Canada, the United States, Peru and Chile, including coal for the steelmaking industry, copper and zinc. In the Forbes Global 2000, Teck Resources ranked as the 1,616th largest public company in the world.

In August of 2019, the B.C. government released a draft Closure and Reclamation Plan for the Tulsequah Chief mine site, appropriating $1.6 million for the work needed. In October of 2020, Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice ruled in favor of halting the receivership process for Chieftain Metals, owner of the mine. Without that decision, the provincial government was legally prohibited from taking measures to assume responsibility for the mine. The court did, however, give Chieftain Metals’s largest creditor, West Face Capital, until August 2022 to find a buyer for the mine and petition the court to begin the receivership process anew.

Investors must know by now that this mine isn’t a viable project, economically, environmentally, politically or culturally, said Fred Olsen Jr., executive director of SEITC.

“We recognize that British Columbia is moving to take over responsibility for the cleanup and closure of the Tulsequah Chief mine site, but we’re largely in the dark as to specific details, timelines, funding, and B.C.’s long term plans for the lower Taku River area,” he said.

According to Jill Weitz, of Salmon Beyond Borders, the Tulsequah Chief, and other Teck projects polluting downstream neighboring communities, are prime examples of the inadequacies of B.C.’s mining laws that allow large corporations to walk away from their messes — leaving it up to B.C. taxpayers and those downstream to bear the burden.

“These laws must change, and polluters must pay,” Weitz said. “It’s the cost of doing business.”

SEITC has been in correspondence with British Columbia Premier John Horgan on SEITC’s request to participate in permitting discussions and decisions throughout B.C.’s environmental process, pursuant to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

In a letter to Horgan on March 31, SEITC chair Rob Sanderson Jr. noted that SEITC has an historical and inherent interest in the environmental review and approval process for mines in the transboundary rivers area. SEITC urged that, during the review period, there be a pause in new permits, amendments to existing permits and approval of new mining projects in British Columbia until such time as the completion of internal reviews and a decision on SEITC’s ability to consult.

This past week, Sanderson received a letter from Bruce Ralston, B.C.’s minster of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation, saying that his staff would be in touch soon to schedule a meeting.

Ralston said the province is committed to implementing the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act and ensuring that indigenous nations, when potentially impacted by projects within the province, are appropriately engaged in the review process.