UPDATED SEPTEMBER 17: To include Lt. Gov. Byron Mallot's office response to concerns by the United Tribal Transboundary Mining Work Group.
An organization of Alaska Native leaders wants the U.S./Canada International Joint Commission, formed by a 1909 treaty, to ensure British Columbia mines use best practices to prevent contamination of rivers that cross from Canada into Southeast Alaska.
They also want Alaska Native governments to be consulted because their territories, economies and environmental health are at stake.
The United Tribal Transboundary Mining Work Group, a union of 15 federally recognized Alaska Native governments in the state’s southeast, takes issue with a September 8 letter to Secretary of State John Kerry from Alaska’s congressional delegation.
The congressional delegation asked that the federal government “partner with Alaska to press Canada on policy answers” regarding mining, “encourage British Columbia officials to consider the cumulative impacts of mining and their potential impacts on transboundary waters,” and determine whether the International Joint Commission “is a suitable venue to determine whether Canadian mines are following ‘best practices’ in treatment of wastewaters and acid-producing mine tailings.”
The United Tribal work group says the International Joint Commission’s involvement is needed now to ensure there are adequate safeguards to protect the salmon-rich Stikine, Taku and Unuk rivers from potential mining risks upstream in British Columbia. According to the Alaska Department of Fish & Game, the Taku is Southeast Alaska’s top salmon-producing river.
The United Tribal work group also says the commission’s involvement is required under the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty.
“We don’t need more research on whether the [joint commission] is relevant,” work group chairman Fred Olsen said in a statement issued by the organization. “It has been relevant for over 100 years. When you have a tool tailor-made for the job, you should use it.”
United Tribal work group members want to prevent another Mount Polley mine disaster. In that disaster, on August 4, 2014, a copper- and gold-mine tailings pond breached, releasing mining waste into a lake and nearby streams, negatively affecting drinking water and aquatic life.
A review panel concluded the breach “was the result of a failure in the foundation of the embankment” and that the design of the pond embankment “did not take into account the complexity of the sub-glacial and pre-glacial geological environment associated with the perimeter embankment foundation.”
Several other mines are in operation in British Columbia and approximately 12 more are under consideration for reopening. Among the materials mined or proposed to be mined: coal, copper, gold, silver, magnesium, magnetite and zinc.
The six-member International Joint Commission – three seats appointed by the U.S. president, three by the Canadian prime minister – resolves disputes related to waters shared by the two countries, including the Great Lakes and the Columbia River. Its purview now includes eight international agreements related to water and air quality.
The 1909 treaty states, in the language of the day, that “no use shall be permitted which tends materially to conflict with or restrain any other use which is given preference over it in this order of precedence: 1. Uses for domestic and sanitary purposes; 2. Uses for navigation, including the service of canals for the purposes of navigation; 3. Uses for power and for irrigation purposes.”
The treaty states that “questions or matters of difference … involving the rights, obligations, or interests” the U.S. or Canada shall be referred to the International Joint Commission “for examination and report,” whenever the U.S. or Canadian government shall request. The “questions or matters of difference” can be referred to the commission for final decision if both governments consent.
The United Tribal work group wants that request made.
“All of the things asked for [by the congressional delegation] would be better served under an International Joint Commission: Tribal consultation, agency review, requirements for best mining practices and community dialogue,” Olsen said. “Asking Secretary Kerry for anything less than [the] International Joint Commission to examine this issue is inadequate given the potential devastation that would be experienced by the people of Southeast Alaska in the case of a mine failure. The International Joint Commission is the right tool for the job: we are calling on the federal government to do its job and put it to use.”
Among other concerns expressed by the work group:
· An information-sharing agreement signed last year by Alaska and British Columbia government agencies does not include Native governments. A representative of the work group has only been invited to one meeting of Alaska and British Columbia government agencies that signed the agreement.
The letter from Alaska’s congressional delegation does call for a more formal consultation process with state and federal agencies and Alaska Native governments during mine reviews. But work group member John Morris, Tlingit, said, “We do not need Congress to grant us consultation, consultation is required.” However, according to the office of Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, “the state of Alaska has held over 14 meetings with tribal representation including meetings with BC Provincial Government, U.S. Federal Agencies, and State of Alaska natural resource leadership. ... Mallott is committed to collaboration with tribes in Alaska and has also sought to form working relationships with First Nation leaders in Canada with multiple trips, the latest was the Canada Ministry of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation Leadership Gathering in Vancouver on September 9, 2016.”
· The congressional delegation wants funding for the U.S. Geological Survey to conduct a baseline water-quality study on these rivers, in case the U.S. has to file for damages for contamination caused by a mining accident. But Rob Sanderson, first vice president for Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, said the Central Council has already conducted more than a year’s worth of data collection.
“We had to acquire this funding [for data collection] on our own,” Sanderson said. “We have the trained personnel and connection with these rivers, and it is our communities that will suffer the most grievous effects in the case of a catastrophic mine or tailings-pond failure. We are the stewards of these waterways, and any new baseline funding needs to be distributed to Central Council and not to yet another federal government agency.”
Clinton Cook, chairman of the Craig Tribal Association, said the congressional delegation’s letter does point out shortcomings of the British Columbia permitting system.
“They ask for these mines and their impacts to be considered along with all the other mine developments, roads, transmission corridors and increased access,” Cook said. “This is critical to assuring protection of these rivers. This level of cumulative-effects analysis is not currently happening.”