British Columbia officials say there might be no way to clean up acid rock drainage into the Tulsequah River without restarting a mining operation.
And they say that while Alaskans and U.S. officials will be consulted closely throughout the permitting process for the mine, B.C. will retain the exclusive authority to decide whether the developer can proceed.
About 100 Juneau residents heard Wednesday evening from officials of B.C.'s Environmental Assessment Office and three provincial ministries that oversee water, fish and wildlife protection.
The informational meeting highlighted a fundamental disagreement between Alaskans and the provincial government on whether a comprehensive plan for the salmon-rich Taku River watershed is needed before any development is approved. The Taku meets the Tulsequah just downstream of the mine.
Jim Hofweber of the Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection complained that the existing environmental problem is being played down. The Tulsequah Chief mine, closed by Cominco in 1957, has been leaching toxic metals ever since.
"I want you all to understand there's a problem right now," Hofweber said. "This is not a pristine watershed. ... That isn't clear to a lot of people."
He presented slides showing an orange stain on the riverbank next to the mine. Oxidation underground results in sulfuric acid that dissolves metals in the rock, contributing to periodically excessive levels of lead and copper in waters at the B.C.-Alaska border, he said.
Questioned repeatedly about why B.C. hasn't ordered the current mine owner, Redcorp of Vancouver, to clean it up, Hofweber said there's no way to do it without creating essentially the same infrastructure that mine opponents fear, including a 100-mile road through the wilderness southwest of Atlin.
Redcorp proposes to end the acid drainage through backfilling in new mining operations. Processed waste rock mixed with cement would squeeze out air and end the oxidation, Hofweber said. "The only thing I'm interested in is stopping this and protecting that river."
Pat Galvin, Alaska's director of governmental coordination, told the B.C. officials that the state "insists" that a bi-national and comprehensive plan be developed for the entire Taku River watershed.
"Alaska supports mineral development but we believe it must be based on the principles of 'doing it right,' " Gov. Tony Knowles said in a written statement. "We do not believe these principles have yet been applied to the Tulsequah Chief mine."
B.C. continues to resist referring the matter to the International Joint Commission, which was set up under a boundary waters treaty.
"We believe there are better ways of developing a relationship that is not simply a one-off (one-time)," said Daphne Stancil of the Environmental Assessment Office.
Stancil said there are nearly as many Americans at the table as Canadians when the EAO's project review committee meets. She said B.C. has invited Alaska to participate in the permit review process, if the mine gets a new certificate of approval next year. A judge last year threw out the previous certificate, saying concerns of B.C. Tlingits had been ignored.
Alaskans won't have power in the administrative review, Hofweber acknowledged. "As far as veto power, there isn't any."
Redcorp officials didn't attend Wednesday's meeting.
"I think that's extremely discourteous and disrespectful," said Chris Zimmer of Juneau, representing the Transboundary Watershed Alliance.
Redcorp President Terry Chandler and Atlin-based representative Terry Zanger did not return phone calls.
Sarah Keeney of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council questioned whether Redcorp is a solvent company capable of reclamation after the mine is closed or in the event of a catastrophe, such as an earthquake.
Hofweber described Redcorp as "a junior company, one step above prospector status," that is looking to turn the project over to an established developer in return for a share of ownership.
Written comments on the project are being accepted through Jan. 7. They can be sent to Environmental Assessment Office, P.O. Box 9426 Stn Prov Govt, Victoria, B.C. V8W 9V1, Attention: Judith Carder, or e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bill McAllister can be reached at email@example.com.