After the tailings pond dam breach at Mount Polley on Monday morning, Southeast Alaskans are worried about another Imperial Metals Corporation mine already being constructed at the headwaters of the Stikine watershed, one of the largest salmon producers in the Tongass National Forest.
The Red Chris Project, an open-pit copper and gold mine, is being constructed in northwest British Columbia near the Iskut River, a major tributary of the Stikine River. The Red Chris is predicted to process almost 30,000 tons of ore per day for 28 years, according to the Imperial Metals Corporation website.
“In Southeast Alaska, we will absorb nothing but risk,” Brian Lynch of the Petersburg Vessel Owner’s Association said. “We have everything to lose and nothing to gain.”
Lynch said that, after Monday’s incident, the fact that the Imperial Mines Corporation is also at the helm of the Red Chris Project increases concern for the Stikine watershed. The Stikine is an important salmon-producing river for the Tongass National Forest.
“A breach like this would be a disaster,” Lynch said of the Red Chris Project. “These systems produce a lot of salmon for our billion-dollar-a-year industry.”
Tailings dams, like the one that breached at Mount Polley, hold toxic waste rock after the copper and gold is harvested from the mine.
Because of the harmful chemicals they contain, “tailings dams have to last forever,” said Guy Archibald, mining and clean water coordinator at the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council. The Mount Polley tailings dam was only 14 years old. Tailings dams tend to fail more than water dams do, he said.
“Sooner or later they are going to fail,” Archibald said. “It’s not a matter of ‘if,’ but ‘when.’”
The tailings dam at Red Chris will be 330 feet tall and will need to hold 183 million tons of toxic tailings, according to the British Columbia Environmental Assessment Office website.
Imperial Metals did not comment on plans to prevent a similar failure at Red Chris by press time.
Since word of the disaster hit Monday morning, the company’s stock on the Toronto Stock Exchange plummeted from 16.8 to 9.72 at close of business yesterday.
“Everything comes downhill,” Rob Sanderson of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska said. He argues that the municipal governments have not done enough to protect the region from the negative impacts of the mining projects in British Columbia.
A dam breach “would wipe out a way of life, not just for the tribes who have been here for thousands of years,” Sanderson said, noting the fishing and tourism industries of the Tongass. “If there is an incident at the Stikine, tourism would be gone.”
The Stikine watershed has had its own share of natural disasters. Dale Kelley of the Alaska Trollers Association said that past landslides at tributaries have caused humans to intervene to ensure that salmon survive. But, not too much could be done to mitigate risks posed by the mine.
Even if there is no breach, there could still be negative effects on the salmon population, she said.
Kelley is concerned that sand from the mines may smother salmon eggs or kill food sources for baby salmon, she said.
The natural fisheries of southeast Alaska are a sustainable resource, while the mines are short-lived, Lynch said. Commercial and subsistence fishing in the Tongass has been successful for generations, he said.
“We need to get people to be up in arms about this situation,” Lynch said. “This is not strictly an environmental issue, it’s an economic issue.”
• Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the amount of toxic tailings that will need to be contained at the Red Chris Mine; this has been corrected.