My Turn: Transboundary mines a looming problem

On Oct. 24, a public forum was held on the potential impacts to the Southeast fishing industry from new large mines in British Columbia. This is not the same old battle between greenies and boomers over development. It is a large, growing problem that has no institutional mechanisms to ensure environmental safeguards or provide any means to compensate third parties for potential damages.


This summer, a large tailings dam failed at the Mount Polley mine. The broken dam dumped 14.5 million cubic feet of water and slurry into salmon waters (Polley Lake, Hazeltine Creek, Quesnel Lake and Cariboo Creek). Even more disturbing, these polluted waters are a tributary of the Frazier River — the most productive sockeye salmon river in British Columbia. While total damages will be not quantified for years, it is characterized as Canada’s worst environmental disaster in modern times. Many more large mines are planned as BC expands its energy grid to new mineral deposits.

The Mount Polley failure may be a harbinger of the future. Environmental restoration will be minimal or nonexistent, and there will be no compensation for damage to non-mining interests — on either side of the border. Even if damaged parties successfully sue for damages, the mining company can go bankrupt. That process can result in shallow pockets when it comes to damage awards.

One root cause for no redress is that catastrophic events have low probabilities of occurring but result in large negative consequences. As Dr. David Chambers presented at Friday’s forum, no insurance company is willing underwrite these operations — not even Lloyds of London. The risk pools (other mines) are too small and the liabilities are too great. The same is true for bonding. The risks are too uncertain to accurately determine fair bid prices. That leaves public taxpayers and private victims — on both sides of the border — holding the bag.

Since catastrophic events are nearly impossible to mitigate, trust fund investments are required for stronger safeguards to finance long-term waste management and perpetual pollution control. They are also needed to compensate for economic damage. Qualifying damage needs to include both catastrophic problems as well as low-level chronic problems to water quality and fish habitat.

The only possible solution is an international treaty that allows both industries to coexist. While no solution exists today, there is a U.S.-Canada treaty signed in 1908 that provides for an International Joint Commission. More importantly, there are explicit treaty provisions to protect water quality. This is a good start, but this policy group cannot enforce its recommendations. Any international agreement will take a long time. This means there are certain high-risk mines that should not be permitted until this institutional framework is fully operational. One industry should not have total immunity to severely damage another via direct and unmitigated water pollution. The developing KSM mine in the headwaters of the Unuk River is a good example.

Future mines will be constructed at larger and larger scales, requiring larger and multiple waste disposal sites and the need for virtually perpetual water pollution control. At the same time, the momentum for weak regulations continues. Actual experience shows that environmental safeguards for mining are over-promised and adverse environmental impacts are underestimated by a disturbing 80 to 90 percent. This is tantamount to, “if I can get it permitted then I’m good to go with little or no accountability.”

This status quo is not going to work for us. At the same time, we must recognize that large-scale mining in Canada is becoming a primary economic driver and cease-and-desist solutions will not work.

What will also not work out for us is to apply simple ideological policies from our side. Solutions will be truly complex and changing. One local elected official characterized Friday’s forum as just an anti-mining and demonizing event. This strategy of tagging valid concerns and opposition as obstructionist is profoundly tone deaf. The clear focus at the Friday forum was on the risks and magnitude of dangers facing the Southeast fishing industry. The problems are not small or inconsequential, and no mechanisms exist to minimize or compensate damages. That is hardly obstructionist.

Equally disturbing, the governor and U.S. Senate candidate Dan Sullivan have clearly shown they are aligned with the Pebble Mine’s interests. Both support the demise of the Coastal Management Program. Both promoted the failed HB77 which would have severely disenfranchised local stakeholders from the public participation process for new development. Dan Sullivan’s “EPA overreach” are simply code words for pro-mining and ignore that fact that fishing interests had no other place to go.

So the beat goes on — a state employee charged with overseeing mining and timber development in Southeast has characterized the proposed KSM mine in the Unuk River Basin as responsible modern mining. Rather than seeking more accountability and better safeguards, “our guy” has facilitated the status quo.

If we are not successful in engaging new international compromises, then we put Southeast in the same win/lose column as the salmon watersheds to the south. Forty-one percent of the original salmon watersheds have no salmon left. Where salmon still exist, 31 percent of the watersheds have threatened or endangered populations. This is death by a thousand cuts, and Southeast is facing the knife.

It is foolhardy to simply hope that an Exxon- or Mt. Polley-type failure will never occur again or that private capital interests will not strive to increase profits. Thus, the one chance we have is to get all levels of U.S. government, industry and special interests to engage the IJC and start the process. There is a clear rationale to act under the 1908 treaty in the name of international water quality. However, it is unreasonable to expect the IJC to be the clearinghouse for each mine with transboundary issues. We need a much bigger solution.

Even that may be insufficient.

• Joe Mehrkens is a retired forest economist living in Petersburg.


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