EPA seeks more answers on mine

Road, tailings in floodplain among concerns by environmental officials

Posted: Friday, July 16, 2004

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is again asking Canada for cross-border review of a proposed British Columbia mine that some fear would harm U.S. fisheries in the Taku River watershed.

Alaska regulators, legislators and activists have also forwarded new critiques of the proposed Tulsequah Chief multi-metal mine to the Canadian federal government, and two ministers from Canada's House of Commons said they plan to protest "ongoing, disgraceful and illegal pollution" of the Taku River today in Ottawa.

State officials did not request a cross-border review.

Some U.S. and Canadian organizations, such as the Taku River Tlingit First Nation, are still completing comments on the project this week.

A major request: EPA, the Canadian ministers and a slew of Juneau politicians and environmentalists are pushing for binational planning for all resource activities in the Taku River watershed, which contains important salmon spawning grounds and U.S. and Canadian gillnet fisheries. The proposed mine is about 10 miles from the U.S. border and 40 miles from Juneau.

Previous requests for binational review have fizzled. For example, EPA and then-Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles jointly asked that a neutral, third party such as the International Joint Commission arbitrate the Chief Tulsequah mine controversy in 2001.

Sue Farlinger, regional director of Oceans, Habitat and Enhancement for Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans, said Thursday that she was not aware of any current efforts for cross-border review of the Tulsequah Chief mine, owned by Redfern Resources, Ltd. "All that we are currently engaged in is a road assessment" for the mine, she said.

But many of the major concerns from the U.S. extend beyond the road, said Chris Zimmer, Juneau activist with the Transboundary Watershed Alliance. "DFO is trying to box us in a corner," he said. "It's is a clear sign that Alaska comments are going to fall into a black hole."

In a July 8 letter, EPA officials said they worry that the 100-mile access road planned for the Tulsequah Chief project is spurring additional industrial development that could increase water pollution discharges, specifically heavy metals, in the Taku River watershed. For example, another company has signaled interest in reopening the nearby former Polaris Mine, which could be accessed from the proposed Tulsequah Chief road.

But the EPA officials raised other concerns that have nothing to do with the road. For instance, they wrote to the Canadians that they are worried about the mine's potential to set a negative precedent under the Boundary Waters Treaty by storing surface mine tailings in an active floodplain. The treaty applies to 5,500 miles of US-Canada inland border.

Those concerns and others were sent to DFO by Bill Riley, EPA's Seattle-based director for environmental assessment. In the letter, Riley said failure of the surface tailings impoundment could cause "irreversible injury to salmon spawning and rearing habitat."

In response, Redfern's Chandler said a new company-funded study that hasn't been released yet will show that the location for the impoundment is stable, both in terms of water and geological activity. Groundwater monitoring wells will be installed at the proposed tailings pond to detect any leakage. "If it (leaks) metals, then we activate a pumpback system to the tailings facility of the water treatment system," he said.

Zimmer said his organization is most concerned about possible sedimentation in fish streams caused by the access road and the cumulative effects from additional mine development that is now being promoted by the British Columbia provincial government in the watershed.

The watershed is already impacted by metals that are above the safe levels for aquatic species, he said.

In their comments to DFO, Alaska regulators said Redfern must meet water quality standards in the Tulsequah River, which empties into the Taku River. They also suggested that Redfern's plan to diffuse its effluent into the riverbed "presents potential maintenance and monitoring challenges."

Chandler said all the necessary monitoring will be done, including what was suggested by the Alaska regulators. He said he failed to understand the general concern that fisheries would be impacted by his project, because fish are thriving despite ongoing heavy metal pollution from historic mine operations in the watershed.

He said his project will remediate heavy metal pollution from the historic Chief Tulsequah Mine. "How is that going to kill the fish?" Chandler said.

Farlinger, based in Vancouver, said her agency will review all the concerns about the project and then draft a screening report by the end of the summer, which will be open for public comment. After that, the agency will submit a final decision on the road.

She noted that a separate environmental assessment of the mine was completed several years ago and that there have been no substantial changes in the project design over the past four years.

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