Alaska may get more say in mine

B.C. proposes plan to involve U.S. more in sensitive projects

Posted: Monday, June 19, 2000

The United States and Alaska would be more heavily involved in future land-use planning issues in British Columbia, under a proposal put forward by the B.C. government last week.

But the proposal doesn't call for any change in the schedule for reopening the Tulsequah Chief multi-metal mine 40 miles northeast of Juneau, just across the border.

Plans for the mine and a related 100-mile access road through the wilderness were the reason for unusual talks in Vancouver among American, Canadian, Alaskan and British Columbia officials. Major permits already have been secured by the developer, Redfern Resources Ltd., of Vancouver.

British Columbia laid out a three-part proposal for ensuring a closer working relationship for reviewing environmentally sensitive projects in the future:

U.S. representatives would sit on British Columbia's mine development review committee and take part in provincial land-use planning. Also, an Alaska-British Columbia memorandum of understanding would lay out the process for future consultations.

But the four days of exchanges didn't yield any specific concessions from the Canadians on the access road and mine, said Rob Bosworth, assistant commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

``I think it's safe to say there was a good discussion,'' Bosworth said. Technical experts from the two countries discussed water quality issues and fish habitat in the Taku River watershed, a major salmon producer for Southeast Alaska. ``We have very substantive concerns, and we were able to get those points across clearly to their technical people.''

But British Columbia officials, who already have approved the road and mine in principle, didn't concede that the project is environmentally suspect, Bosworth acknowledged.

In a news release, British Columbia Energy and Mines Minister Dan Miller said that ongoing informal discussions between the governments can resolve any differences about the mine project. He opposed referring the matter to the International Joint Commission (IJC), a U.S.-Canada agency empowered to review transborder environmental issues.

``The mine proposal was subject to a rigorous, detailed environmental and socio-economic review, and a referral to the IJC would duplicate work that has already been done,'' Miller said.

He touted the province's environmental standards as being ``among the best in North America'' and said it was clear the mine would have ``no serious downstream effects.'' He noted that developer Redfern is committed to remedial work on the mine, which has been leaking acid since its closure in 1957.

But Bosworth said that the British Columbia environmental review process is flawed. A formal plan for the Taku watershed is needed before the road and mine proceed, he said.

Harold Frank, environmental planner for the Douglas Indian Association, agrees. He was among a three-person delegation the association sent to Vancouver to look out for the interests of members who depend upon the Taku for subsistence fishing.

In cooperation with federal and state agencies, the Douglas Indian Association has been doing water-quality sampling on the U.S. side of the Taku system, and is concerned about ``spikes'' in heavy metal data, Frank said.

Testing near the mine site and elsewhere along the Taku is needed to determine whether mine tailings from the 1950s are already posing an environmental threat, and whether reclamation would make things better or worse, he said.

In any case, there should be ``a watershed approach'' to environmental protection, rather than ``a project approach,'' Frank said. He described the Canadians as ``willing to listen'' and said he has hope that supplemental work on the environment will take place before the mine is reopened. He's still holding out for the International Joint Commission approach, which he said is ``not the kiss of death, like everybody thinks it is.''

As for the province's proposal for a closer working relationship, Bosworth said the American side welcomes it but still doesn't see it as guaranteeing environmental protection. ``We will have a seat at the table but no control over the outcome,'' he said.

Bosworth said U.S. and Alaska officials plan to ``remain engaged.''

``There is no commitment to a particular time or place or participants for the next meeting,'' he said.

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