On the third day of British Columbia Minister of Energy and Mines William Bennett’s four days in Southeast Alaska, Bennett, his Chief of Staff Cynthia Petrie, Ministry of Energy and Mines environmental geoscientist Tania Demchuk, and Executive Project Director for the Environmental Assessment Office Chris Hamilton made time to sit down with the Juneau Empire to answer a few questions.
The following is that interview, condensed, organized and edited for clarity.
Bennett: We live in a province that has a process that has integrity. We have a good environmental assessment process. One of the reasons I came (to Southeast Alaska) is because my boss, (BC Premier) Christy Clark, cares about what Alaska thinks of British Columbia, and I personally care as a politician. We started all of our meetings with me saying something like this. We care what people think about us in BC.
You said after visiting the Tulsequah Chief Mine, which is leaching acid mine drainage into the Tulsequah River, a tributary of the Taku River, that something needs to be done to clean it up. Alaska has been trying to get the Tulsequah Chief cleaned up for years; various Canadian agencies have also been trying. What do you plan to do that is different to actually get something to happen with the Tulsequah Chief?
Bennett: I said I’m going to try to fix it, so I’m going to try to fix it. It’s a horribly difficult and complex issue for BC, because the scientists on both sides of the border say there isn’t any environmental harm from what’s going into the Tulsequah River. We have limited resources. There’s been industry in BC for a long, long, time and you’ve got contaminated sites. Every year you try to clean up some of them. There’s not that many; BC’s a pretty clean province compared to most places, but there are some. Are you going to spend your money somewhere scientists are saying there’s no environmental impact, or are you going to spend it somewhere scientists are saying ‘Actually, what’s happening there is bad for the natural environment?’
That’s the complication, but it’s not an excuse, and it’s not an excuse to do nothing. I think if we want to have the kind of relationship that we should have with Alaska, we need to address it. I don’t know how I’m going to do that. I’ve started already in terms of talking to people back home about what our options might be.
You’re not allowed in British Columbia to have acid rock drainage going into a watercourse. So the credibility of our processes, our government, (is) linked to our commitment to fix the situation.
Tell us more about the potential of federal compensation should a BC mine pollute Alaskan waters.
Bennett: It’s been mentioned to me as a key issue for the third party stakeholders in Southeast Alaska. If the worst case scenario, the unthinkable happens, which none of us believe would happen, but if it did… It’s a very complex topic. It’s way bigger than BC, Alaska. I grew up in Ontario, and acid rain killed hundreds and hundreds of our lakes where I grew up. The fish were gone. For twenty years, it was a big, big problem. There was no way for Canadians, fishing lodge operators and so forth to go to the US, to a rubber plant down in Ohio, and get compensated for that. To my knowledge, there still is no kind of formal way to get compensation. People go to court.
You’ve said dry stack tailings are not the only way to achieve best available technology and the Red Chris’ wet tailings facility is in keeping with the Mount Polley independent report recommendations. Two of the best practices listed in that report say to eliminate surface water and promote unsaturated conditions. What are we missing?
The disagreement that I would have is if somebody states that dry tailings is the only best available technology for managing tailings. It doesn’t say that. This has been such a problem for the BC government, to the point where (Dirk van Zyl, an engineer who is one of the report’s authors) wrote a letter of clarification to me.*
They identified three components of best available technology, and they listed dry stack, underground backfill and mined out pits as examples of potential management options. Geology, topography and climate of BC are diverse. You have to look at the site, the rock, everything to determine what best available technology is.
What we’re doing now is when engineers say ‘This is our opinion of what’s best available technology,’ we’re saying ‘Show us your work, your calculations, your analysis that help you arrive at the decision that this is best available technology. You say you want to build a dam, and a pond, and you want to put your tailings underwater. Show us that you have considered all the other options, including dry stack tailings. Show us that it doesn’t work for some sound scientific reason.’ And it can’t be because it’s four million dollars cheaper to do it a different way. If it’s more expensive, but it’s the right way to manage tailings, we’re going to tell them. I’m not sure any other province in the country is actually doing that. I’m not sure you do that here in Alaska, even. You’ve got mines in Alaska that manage their tailings exactly the same way as KSM, and Red Chris, and Mount Polley.
I wouldn’t argue with you in the direction of use less water, but they (the report writers) weren’t prescriptive in saying use these particular technologies, and nothing else, and they’re a bit chagrined that’s how it’s being interpreted.
*The Juneau Empire has attached van Zyl’s letter to the story online.
How do you enforce water treatment for a mine like Kerr Sulphurets Mitchell (proposed for the transboundary Unuk River watershed, with a tailings facility in BC’s Nass River watershed) for at least 200 years or in perpetuity?
Bennett: Just remember when you say 200 years, that’s what the company is proposing. They don’t have the permit to do that. They haven’t gone through the permitting process.
Hamilton: (Seabridge Gold, KSM’s proponent) spent several hundred million dollars in improvements to the project to address the concerns raise by Alaskans.
(Petrie later provided figures from Hamilton’s office outlining that additional estimated mine costs because of design changes inspired by the Environmental Assessment, in which Alaska participated, total $317.1 million. That document is available via the online version of this Q&A.)
We enforced 40 legally enforceable conditions, which they are required by law to meet.
The Unuk River drainage has to deal with water treatment modeled in perpetuity to make sure it’s designed for that worst case scenario.
They’ve created a phenomenal dam. It’s a rock structure, it’s got an asphalt core, it’s keyed into bedrock, and it stores the water. There’s a large water treatment plant and a selenium treatment plant that treats all that water before it goes into the Mitchell River, which is diluted by the Sulphurets River.
That environmental assessment was very carefully done. By the time it passes the Alaska border, you couldn’t almost tell there was a mine there.
Demchuk: The actual review of a mine permit application for a project of this scale is very involved. It requires the detailed designs and engineering plans, and a lot of pilot studies and testing. Our experts review that information. Geochemists, environmental geoscientists, geotechnical engineers, reclamation specialists, but also other people who have an interest.
Bennett: You have to have enough money in the bond to pay for what they might be unwilling or unable to do. If there is ongoing maintenance or operations required because of the plan they have, and the situation they’re dealing with, the type of rock and so forth, and there is a long horizon, then their bond is huge, and at some point, it makes the project uneconomic. As Tania indicated, there is an ongoing assessment of that bond at least every five years.
One of the things people here are concerned about are the cumulative effects of all the mines. People have said maps of BC’s proposed mines make the province look like it has the measles. To what extent you all are considering cumulative effects?
We are developing what’s known as a cumulative effects framework for British Columbia. We’ve been working on it for two years. I think we are leading, in Canada, in terms of recognizing that there is such a thing as cumulative effects from a series of industrial activities that are normally assessed project by project.
We will have it in place within the next year or two. The extent to which mine expansion is actually happening in the transboundary area, I think, is much less than what the public seems to believe here. (Points to the proposed Galore Creek Mine on a map.) Galore Creek was going to happen, two or three years for sure. There’s nothing going on at Galore Creek today. Schaft Creek might get developed long before Galore Creek. It’s not ‘Don’t worry, be happy, we’re never going to build any more mines.’ We hope to build some more mines, because they’re good for the economy, and first nations support them, and they’re great for training and for jobs, and we’ve got a good process, but it’s not happening hastily, and it’s certainly not happening in this hugely rushed, comprehensive way that folks worry about.
Hamilton: The Environmental Assessment Act actually has a requirement to do cumulative effects.
What would you like to ask of Alaskans?
Bennett: Alaskans should have some comfort that their state government is actually bird-dogging this stuff way better than they realize.