During two days of public meetings this week, Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott committed to having tribal and public voices contribute to ongoing state-level discussion about transboundary mines — British Columbian mines in watersheds that begin in B.C. and flow into Alaska. He also told Alaskans concerned about the mines’ potential pollution — among them fishermen, elected representatives and Alaska Native leaders — that he is listening to their concerns, but that the involvement of the International Joint Commission under the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909, which many of those concerned say is the best course of action, would only come with a unified voice.
The meetings brought together high-level administrators, elected officials and leaders from a variety of spheres for meetings that, because tribes were treated as sovereign entities by the state, respected Tlingit elder Bob Sam called “historic.”
But although Native leaders commended the state for its “courageous” conversation, they also found fault and said, ultimately, conversation has to result in action.
Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska President Richard Peterson on Wednesday called on the state to do more on the issue, saying a recent report was “seriously lacking.”
When mine reports are tens of thousands of pages long, “…our response can’t just be a page… I challenge you to do a better job,” he said.
State administrators said they’re listening.
“I come to a meeting like this with open arms,” Alaska Department of Natural Resources large project coordinator Kyle Moselle told Peterson.
They had a lot to take in. Tribal representatives from across Southeast expressed strong concerns over those two days of talks.
“There is no mining in this world that has not failed, and that’s a proven fact,” Casimero Aceveda, president of the Organized Village of Kake, said, comparing assurances of safety to those prior to the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
Frederick Olsen, Jr., tribal vice president of the Organized Village of Kasaan, compared mines next to the Tongass to strip clubs and bars next to churches.
“You just don’t do it,” he said. “Everyone kind of recognizes there are certain things you don’t do.”
Though salmon are important, the Tongass is more than salmon, Mallott and participants said at the Aug. 5 meeting, which focused on tribal voices and input. First and foremost, Mallott said, the Tongass is a Native place. Fish like hooligan, traditionally the most important, have been forgotten, said United Tribal Transboundary Mining Work Group co-chairman Rob Sanderson.
“This is much more than a salmon issue. This is our environment. We only have one environment,” Olsen said. “We’re concerned about the hundreds of thousands of years after (the mines close.)”
Over the next three years, CCTHITA plans to work with the Douglas Indian Association, the Wrangell Cooperative Association,and the Ketchikan Indian Community to collect baseline water data on the Taku, Stikine and Unuk rivers, respectively, said Jennifer Hanlon, CCTHITA environmental specialist. The DIA, said tribal administrator Andrea Cadiente-Laiti, already had some water quality testing done.
“I don’t know the Taku,” Peterson told state representatives on Wednesday. “I know the people who do (the Douglas Indian Association)…. When you hear these people talk, I hope you take it very serious, because they’re dropping wisdom like the rain comes down.”
While state reviews have focused on the largest mines, evaluated on an individual basis, vice-mayor of Petersburg Cindi Lagoudakis pointed out on Thursday that there aren’t just a few proposed.
If small mines were there as well, “that map would look like a map with the measles,” Mallott said.
Guy Archibald of Inside Passage Water Keeper, a program of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC), said given the number of mines under development, cumulative effects analysis is important.
“It’s oftentimes the small, little, cumulative injuries that cause harm, rather than the catastrophic failures,” he said.
United Fishermen of Alaska at-large board member Lindsey Bloom told Mallott at the Thursday meeting she’s looking “for something a lot more concrete” — signed agreements, assurances the mines are adhering to “the highest possible standards,” and a course of action should fishermen be impacted.
“Everything that you have articulated is what we will seek,” Mallott told her, adding that the state will be “as responsibly aggressive as is appropriate ... in order to advance Alaska’s interest to the best degree possible.”
DNR Deputy Commissioner Ed Fogels said the state is going to request the mines’ monitoring go as far downstream as possible.
“All mines typically are required to monitor downstream,” he said. “The real question is: ‘How downstream do they go?’ We’re going to try to push it.”
“The British Columbia government does not need to treat with us at all. They literally do not,” Mallott told Bloom. “We could breach the relationship with British Columbia at some point in believing … what is in Alaska’s interest, but we’re moving down the road in the most respectful and candid way possible.”
Action, potential of IJC involvement
Peterson said his concern is that meetings and dialogue result in action, not just talk.
“I’d like to see that we come up with a defensible and strategic plan,” he said on Wednesday. “A way to move forward and be assured that we’re going to be heard and listened to by Canada.”
That way, said Rivers Without Borders Alaska Campaign Director Chris Zimmer, is the IJC.
“The only thing that gives us power is the IJC,” Zimmer said. “Even without the IJC, the Boundary Waters Treaty exists and needs to be followed ... (the IJC) seems to be the only option with any teeth or authority. Right now, we’re kind of like beggars going to the BC permitting table for scraps.”
For now, after meetings this week, a representative of the United Tribal Transboundary Mining Work Group and volunteer members from the second day’s meeting will be in ongoing communication with Mallott’s transboundary mines working group, composed of Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten, Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Larry Hartig and Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Mark Myers.
Hartig told groups on Wednesday and Thursday that he hopes, with concerned members of the public, to be able to build something “that will be around for generations.”
“What I see happening is not something that is going to end today,” he told the group on Thursday. “(I hope that) what happens ... will be protecting our transboundary waters for decades.”
Mallott said he’ll consider IJC referral if, after all discussions, it remains something people believe “is hugely important.”
He’s gotten pushback on the issue from B.C. and the Canadian embassy, he said.
“It likely will only happen if all of the interests are in alignment,” he said.
British Columbian Minister of Energy and Mines Bill Bennett is coming to Alaska August 24-27, Mallott said. Tribal members hope to be able to speak with him then.
Ultimately, Mallott told Native leaders on Wednesday the state’s role will likely be modest.
“It will be the voice ... of an engaged citizenry and an engaged group of people who feel and know strongly ... their interest in the issue that will guide the development of public policy,” he said.
• Contact Mary Catharine Martin at email@example.com.