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Richard Arlin Walker
Special to ICT

The Chilkat Indian Village of Klukwan is challenging a state permit approving construction of a gold and metals mine that would tunnel under the Saksaia Glacier on 6,100-foot Flower Mountain near the headwaters of the Chilkat River watershed.

Chilkat Indian Village officials say the project’s proposed system to treat water runoff from the mine in southeast Alaska is insufficient to protect glacier-fed streams that flow into the Chilkat River and other salmon-bearing rivers and streams.

“Protecting the pristine quality of the Chilkat River watershed is our responsibility and enshrined in our Tribal Constitution,” Chilkat Indian Village President Kimberly Strong said in a statement.

“Our government will continue to carry out our duty to ensure a system built to discharge mine wastewater and waste rock does not contaminate the pristine quality of the Chilkat River watershed.”

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The Chilkat Indian Village is seeking a hearing on a permit that allows Constantine Metal Resources to mine for gold, barite, copper, silver and zinc at a site that is 37 miles from the deep-sea port of Haines, Alaska, north of Juneau.

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, which approved the permit, sent the Village’s request for a hearing to the state’s Office of Administrative Hearings on Nov. 4. The hearings office considers decisions made by executive branch agencies and other governmental bodies.

Constantine, which is headquartered in Vancouver, British Columbia, has proposed the mine project, and Dowa Metals and Mining, a Japanese company, has majority ownership interest in the mine, according to Constantine’s project website.

Strong said the environmental degradation and health risk outweigh the financial benefits from what is known as the Palmer Project.

Rock that is extracted during mining and left behind as waste — known as mine tailings — often contain heavy metals that can get carried by the elements into surface and ground waters, where they can be hazardous to humans, animals and aquatic life.

In a statement issued by the Indian Village government, Vice President Jones P. Hotch Jr. said the site is just west of the Denali fault and is prone to earthquakes. Extreme temperatures and weather events, combined with the steep terrain, make the watershed – and the proposed mine-water treatment system – vulnerable to avalanches, landslides and flooding.

“We have lived here since time immemorial,” he said. “Geologic and hydrologic hazards are significant on Klukwan lands.”

Village officials and environmentalists have been unwavering in their opposition to the proposed mine.

“There is too much history of large mines polluting public waters and destroying fisheries resources,” Gershon Cohen, of Alaska Clean Water Advocacy, told Alaska Public Media.

Lasting legacy

The environmental concerns appear to be backed up by the record.

All five active, precious-metal mines in Alaska have experienced “at least one major spill or other accidental release of hazardous materials such as mine tailings, cyanide solution, diesel fuel and ore concentrate,” according to a 2020 report by Earthworks, a conservation and environmental health organization.

The report notes that the Environmental Impact Statement at four of the mines underestimated the impact of the mines on water quality and failed to predict violations of state and federal law.

Four of the mines “failed to capture or control contaminated mine water” and have been identified by EPA as out-of-compliance with federal laws to protect air or water, the report states. Metals pollution from two mines contaminated public lands designated as national monuments.

Meanwhile, a former mine near the Southeast Alaska/Canada border continues to taint the environment. The Tulsequah Chief Mine, where Cominco extracted copper, lead and zinc from 1951-1957, is the subject of a multimillion-dollar reclamation plan.

The former mine is located near the confluence of the Tulsequah and Taku rivers, within the homelands of the Taku River Tlingit First Nation. The Taku River flows from British Columbia into Juneau and the inland waters leading to the Pacific Ocean.

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In hopes of resuming mining at Tulsequah, current owner Chieftain Metals Corp. conducted a study in 2014 that determined there was “no unacceptable risk” to the Tulsequah River from discharges of untreated wastewater from the mine.

However, a risk assessment performed under contract for the British Columbia Ministry of Environment and Climate Change found contamination levels in untreated discharges posed “unacceptable risks” to fish, fish eggs and pelagic invertebrates in the immediate area.

Balancing act

Trying to balance environmental protection with the dollars and jobs generated by mining has Alaska state government officials meandering like a mountain stream.

All told, five active precious-metal mines in Alaska employ more than 2,200 people, according to the Alaska Department of Natural Resources Division of Mining, Land and Water. More are employed by companies engaged in mineral exploration and coal mining.

The five precious-metal mines yielded a total of 640,324 ounces of gold in their latest-reported year, as well as 10.5 million ounces of silver, 1.3 billion pounds of zinc and 273 million pounds of lead.

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, commonly known as ADEC, approved Constantine’s permit application in July 2019. Chilkat Indian Village then engaged with ADEC in government-to-government consultation and successfully challenged the permit. In May this year, ADEC approved the permit with conditions, and the Village government sought to halt the project.

Ultimately, ADEC sided with Constantine.

This 1895 photo shows a potlatch in a village on the Chilkat River in Alaska. "We have lived here since time immemorial,” said Chilkat Indian Village Vice President Jones P. Hotch Jr., of the village's opposition to a gold and metals mine in 2022 at the headwaters of the Chilkat River. (Photo via Library of Congress)

At the same time, Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy, a Republican, filed a complaint in U.S. District Court seeking to force the U.S. government to budget money for the environmental cleanup of lands conveyed to Alaska Natives under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

Some 1,179 sites have been identified as contaminated.

“The contamination that the federal government left behind threatens the health of Alaskans and our environment and limits the use of lands that were intended to be a resource for Alaska,” Dunleavy said in an announcement of the complaint.

Dunleavy, however, has also asked for federal approval of the proposed Pebble Mine, near Bristol Bay — which the U.S. government has blocked, citing the environmental risks. In a letter to EPA Regional Administrator Casey Sixkiller, Dunleavy wrote that the Pebble Mine is believed to contain between 6.5 billion and 11 billion metric tons of mineral resources: copper, gold, molybdenum; rhenium and silver.

In blocking development of Pebble Mine, Dunleavy wrote, the EPA “disregards Alaska's ability to — and history of — ensuring the protection of its own fishery resources through the State's permitting system.”

He continued, “These lands provide the revenues necessary to support state and local governments and to sustain Alaska's economy, culture, and way of life. … The proposed Pebble mine would contribute an estimated 6,166 jobs for Alaskans and generate $2.8 billion to $5.39 billion in State revenue.”

In its veto of the Pebble Mine project, the EPA predicted the mine would result in the loss of 949.5 miles of fish-bearing streams and 2,113 acres of wetlands and other waters that support fish streams.

In response, Dunleavy wrote that 941 of those stream miles are not tied to identified fisheries and that an 8.5-mile stream loss in the Nushagak and Kvichak River watersheds is minor because the two watersheds “contain over 33,000 miles of streams.”

Looking ahead

Back at the Chilkat River, tribal officials said the effort to protect the watershed will continue.

Hotch said said the rivers and streams within the watershed are sacred sites and “an integral junction to the trade routes that we have owned and used for many years.”

“We would like all governments to work together to protect Jilḵáat Aani Ḵa Héeni (Chilkat River watershed) for the safety and health of all people,” he said. “This is not an unreasonable request.”

Mining metals in Alaska
Fort Knox Mine, located about 25 highway miles northeast of Fairbanks. Employees: 701. Production: 264,283 ounces of gold (2021).
Greens Creek Mine, in the Tongass National Forest about 18 miles southwest of Juneau. Employees: 440. Production: 125 million pounds of zinc, and 47.1 million pounds of lead, 10.5 million ounces of silver, 48,491 ounces of gold (2020).
Kensington Mine, in the Tongass National Forest about 45 air miles north-northwest of Juneau and 35 air miles south-southeast of Haines. Employees: 395. Production: 123,550 ounces of gold (2021).
Pogo Mine, about 38 miles northeast of Delta Junction. Employees: 500 employees and 170 contract employees. Gold production: 204,000 ounces of gold (2021).
Red Dog Mine, in the Western Brooks Range about 82 miles north of Kotzebue and 46 miles inland from the coast of the Chukchi Sea. Employees: Not reported. Production: 1.22 billion pounds of zinc and 226 million pounds of lead (2019).
Other mines: Seven metal-mining exploration projects are underway and 10 coal mines are in operation or under consideration.
Source: Alaska Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Mining, Land and Water 

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