As the debate over the proposed Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay continues to rage with public hearings held by the Environmental Protection Agency, D-Sen. Mark Begich is calling for further environmental review on proposed mines in British Columbia that could negatively affect southeast Alaskan waterways and sustainable fisheries.
“We end up with the end result if something goes bad, and that’s not acceptable” Sen. Begich said in a phone interview Sunday. “We take the total load, the total risk.”
The Mount Polley Mine tailings dam breach two weeks ago released approximately 10 million cubic meters of tailings — toxic waste — into nearby waterways. Begich said he wants to ensure Southeast Alaska does not suffer the same fate should other mines have similar accidents.
When BC premier Christy Clark was elected in 2011 she called for eight mines to go up in four years, creating new jobs and economic development for the province. And with recent the completion of the Northwest Transmission Line, Canada is capitalizing on that promise.
One of the proposed mines, the Red Chris Project, is being constructed in the headwaters of the Stikine River watershed. According to Ed Jones, a fisheries biologist at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the Stikine is the largest watershed by volume in the Tongass National Forest and fourth-largest in the state.
“Our watersheds are still pristine to a large extent,” Jones said. “In general, Alaska has done a really good job in protecting the habitats.”
The Tongass National Forest produces about 28 percent of Alaska’s salmon every year and generates more than $1 billion in commerce. In addition, salmon is important for tourism and subsistence needs in the region.
As a first step, Begich wrote a letter urging Secretary of State John Kerry to demand a more thorough investigation into the cause of the Mount Polley tailings dam breach so future breaches may be prevented. The same company that built the Mount Polley Mine, Imperial Metals Corporation, is in charge of the Red Chris Project.
Begich, as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and the Coast Guard, plans to hold a hearing on the transboundary mines to continue the conversation and open a place for constructive dialogue, he wrote to Kerry.
“I am not convinced that the (State Department) are really engaged in these issues until they become a problem,” R-Sen. Lisa Murkowski said at an event in Sitka in the days following the Mount Polley accident. “I don’t want us to get into that situation where we are then responding. It’s so much better if we can engage early and do it practically.”
In addition, Begich, Murkowski, and other Alaskan politicians have called for the Canadians to perform a Panel Review of the proposed Kerr Sulphurets Mitchell (KSM) mine. A Panel Review would bring outside experts to the mine to assess dangers and potential impacts of the mine.
Alaskans can provide public comment on proposed BC mines, said Chris Zimmer, Alaska Campaign Director for Rivers without Borders. But, he added, the Canadian government has no obligation to listen to Alaskan concerns.
Zimmer said that in theory, the U.S. may have stricter environmental review processes, noting the extent to which the proposed Pebble Mine has been reviewed by the EPA. It all comes down to practice, he said. And all mines pose a serious risk.
“Everything would have to go perfectly,” Zimmer said, to ensure that there were no accidents. “And in the real world nothing goes perfectly.”
Tom Bristol, director of Trout Unlimited, also has concerns about regulatory practices in BC. “Based on recent events, we are skeptical of the province’s ability to regulate the mines once they are operating.”
This is not just a regulatory issue, Bristol said. Like the proposed Pebble Mine, these proposed BC mines pose serious risks because of their scale and placement in key salmon watersheds. He said there may be other places BC could put mines that would not be such a risk to Alaskans and the sustainable fisheries.
The Boundary Waters Treaty, signed in 1910, should protect Alaskan waters from pollution, Zimmer said. Begich said he will be working with the state department and Canadian embassy to ensure the treaty is upheld.
“We recognize they are the sovereign country,” Begich said. Begich also called the Canadian embassy to express his concern about the transboundary mines affecting Southeast Alaska fisheries. “We have cross boundary waters that we have to ensure for our fisherman and for long-term stability,” he said.
Jackie Timothy is the Southeast Regional Supervisor for the habitat division at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. She said that without any previous tailings breaches in Southeast, there are no case studies to help the department predict just how salmon populations would be affected by a tailings pond breach. Fortunately for Southeast, the tailings dam for the proposed KSM mine would not be on the Unuk River.
“I don’t think anyone built a mine with the intent of environmental destruction,” Timothy said. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has provided the Canadian government with recommendations on how to best protect salmon populations downstream from the new mines.
Begich said he wants to encourage Alaskans to contact their legislators regularly about actions they want to see and to tell friends and relatives in other states to do the same thing for their legislators.
“We have a lot of great relations with Canada,” Begich said. “But, we have cross jurisdiction on these issues and we need to work together to ensure that the long-term fisheries habitats are not affected and not at risk because of other developments.”