Advocates: Tailings dam breach a warning for Alaska

A tailings dam at Mount Polley Mine in British Columbia ruptured Monday morning, sending toxic waste into a watershed that flows into Vancouver. The breach spurred some Southeast Alaskan fishermen and Alaska Native organizations to renew calls for more extensive environmental review of British Columbian mines proposed for watersheds that flow into Alaska.


The Mount Polley breach, which Canadian news organization CBC News called “one of BC’s worst environmental disasters,” and which Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs compared to the Exxon Valdez oil spill, sent about 10 million cubic meters of tailings water — which preliminary testing indicated Thursday meets Canadian and BC drinking water standards — and 4.5 million cubic meters of fine toxic tailings into lakes and rivers in the Fraser River Watershed, according to figures from BC’s Ministry of Energy and Mines.

The Fraser River, which as of Thursday was not affected by water quality warnings, is expecting a run of up to 3 million sockeye salmon in about two weeks.


Southeast Alaskans concerned about BC’s mining push compared Mount Polley to Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell, also known as KSM. KSM is an open-pit and underground mine proposed for the transboundary Unuk River watershed. Its tailings facility, which will store 2 billion tons of tailings, will be located just south of the border in the Nass River watershed. The Juneau Empire reported extensively on KSM, transboundary mines, and BC’s mining push in a series of articles earlier this year.

Seabridge Gold, the company behind KSM, says its tailings facility is vastly different from Mount Polley’s.

Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska President Richard Peterson said in a release that “Central Council sees this (breach) as a stark reminder why we need much more study, stronger guarantees from Canada and more engagement by the US and Alaska before mines like KSM go ahead to ensure our cultural and traditional resources are protected.”

Brian Lynch, of the Petersburg Vessel Owners Association, asked that Canada “issue no new mine permits in the transboundary river region until there is a full investigation of this accident and (there are) guarantees that similar accidents won’t occur at larger mines proposed in the Unuk, Stikine and Taku watersheds.”

Senator Mark Begich wrote a letter calling on Secretary of State John Kerry to demand an investigation of the dam failure.

“This week’s failure of the Mount Polley tailings pond dam in British Columbia validates fears Alaska fishermen have regarding Canada’s proposed development of large-scale hardrock mineral mines near transboundary rivers with Alaska,” he wrote in the letter. “Reports that the dam failure followed repeated warnings from the B.C. Ministry of Environment raise serious questions about provincial permitting and oversight of this industry… A similar failure at mines proposed (near the) Unuk, Stikine and Taku Rivers would directly affect fishery stocks upon which commercial and recreational fishermen depend, as well as the subsistence and cultural needs of the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people of my state.”

Begich asked that Kerry request Canada call for a panel review of KSM, and said he intends to hold a hearing on the Mount Polley breach as Chair of the Senate Commerce subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard.

Seabridge Gold’s Environment and Sustainability Manager, Brent Murphy, said Seabridge is “very concerned” about what happened at Mount Polley, but that there are some big differences between the two tailings facilities.

KSM’s tailings management facility is “a completely different design as compared to Mount Polley,” he said, with the water in the facility “kilometers or miles away from the actual crest of the dam.” He also said it’s designed to withstand high rainfall and flood events.

Southeast Alaskans are also concerned about the water treatment facility in the Unuk watershed, which will treat water flowing over the mine site for at least 200 years after the mine’s closure at a current-day cost of about $25 million per year.

Jack DiMarchi, Large Mine Project Manager for the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, said the dam break hasn’t impacted Alaska’s approval of KSM, as the mine’s tailings facility isn’t in a transboundary watershed.

Lynch said those who say a spill in the Nass River watershed won’t affect Alaska, as the Nass River isn’t transboundary, are missing the point.

“A spill on either the Unuk or the Nass will affect our fishermen,” he said. “Why should the state of Alaska, or DNR, not request the highest level of assessment of mines?”

DiMarchi referred questions about other transboundary mines and their tailings facilities to Large Project Coordinator Kyle Moselle, who is out of the office this week. DNR and other Alaskan agencies have said they have no significant concerns about KSM Mine.

A 30-day comment period on Canada’s environmental assessment of KSM closes Wednesday, Aug. 20.

Previous warnings; environmental regulations

Environmental consultant Brian Olding reviewed a technical report from Imperial Metals several years ago.

The crux of the problem was that the tailings facility had more water entering it than exiting it, he said.

“We provided a safe way for them to discharge the water (in the review) … They didn’t follow our recommendations for whatever reason,” he said. “I don’t know why they didn’t do that.”

The mine had sought permits to release water from the facility into the watershed, something several nearby First Nations opposed.

The cause of the dam breach is still undetermined as of press time.

“I don’t know what the cause of the dam breach was, but I know there was a water problem there, and that’s obviously a source of suspicion,” he said. “It could have been human error... (Whether we know what) caused that breach or not, there was a serious issue there.”

Some First Nations blame relaxed environmental laws for the disaster.

“We are deeply concerned about the environmental degradation that this man-made disaster will leave in its wake, not only now, but well into the future,” said Chief Shane Gottfriedson, Tribal Spokesperson, in a release from the Shuswap Nation Tribal Council. “When Prime Minister (Stephen) Harper changed the environmental legislation without first nation’s consultation we knew it would be only a matter of time before something like this happened.”

Chief Nelson Leon of Adams Lake Indian Band said there should be a moratorium on mining and exploration activities in BC, and that there should be a comprehensive review of safety procedures on tailings.

“This isn’t just a Secwepemc nation problem, this is a provincial problem. We must hold all levels of government accountable, as well as the owners of the mine,” he said in the release.

Future in BC and Alaska

Olding said the British Columbian government needs to augment its inspection procedures.

“Canadian environmental law and regulation has been knocked back in the last two decades,” he said. “The mining industry is very important to British Columbia. It pays for schools, for hospitals. (But) a commensurate amount of money has to be put into environmental protection. That’s the point that needs to be brought to bear.”

Asked whether Alaskans should have concerns about transboundary mines having similar problems, Olding said any decrease in environmental regulations is a cause for concern, anywhere.

“You want the best environmental protection you can possibly get. You don’t call it red tape, you call it environmental protection,” he said. “It definitely has implications for other mines. The (Canadian) government needs to look right across the problem and examine everything from ground zero.”

“This is a horrible thing,” said Lynch. “This is exactly what we’re trying to avoid with these mines on the transboundary rivers. (That’s) why we’re… requesting the level of environmental assessment (for KSM) be increased to a panel review, which is the highest level of assessment in the Canadian environmental assessment process.”

“It seems that… concern is ramped up everywhere (after the tailings breach),” Lynch said. “That dam had approval, too, by both British Columbia and the (Canadian) federal government, and it failed… We don’t want that to happen here. That’s what this is about.”

• Juneau Empire freelancer Anna Bisaro contributed to this report.


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