Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission
Recently, the Bilateral Working Group (BWG) issued its report on transboundary water quality monitoring, a collaborative four-year effort between the province of British Columbia, Canada (BC) and the state of Alaska to examine water quality in the Stikine, Taku, and Unuk River watersheds. In its press release, the state of Alaska said the British Columbia-Alaska Transboundary Rivers Monitoring Program has now concluded its work. “A great example of what can be achieved when we work together," said George Heyman, British Columbia's Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy.
The program was initiated out of the 2015 Memorandum of Understanding and Statement of Cooperation (Agreement) signed by the Governor of Alaska and Premier of British Columbia. “This needs to be recognized as a beginning, not the end,” said Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission (SEITC) Chair Rob Sanderson, Jr. “Alaska and British Columbia have only just started working together.”
The final reports of the British Columbia-Alaska Transboundary Rivers Monitoring Program concluded that these rivers continue to support and sustain aquatic life in conjunction with mining and other land use activities. Jennifer Hanlon, Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission Vice Chair: “It is premature to assume our rivers can sustain through long term cumulative stresses, especially if all these mines were to become fully operational. More data and more voices, notably Tribal, are needed to promote accountability.”
Citing the existence of other sampling programs planned by state, federal or provincial agencies throughout the transboundary region, the state of Alaska feels no need to continue the joint program. “Stunning,” said Frederick Olsen, Jr., Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission Executive Director. “You can call the Agreement between Alaska and British Columbia a charade. We need federal involvement.” Jill Weitz, Director, Salmon Beyond Borders: “Do not be fooled; the Dunleavy administration has yet again given Canadian mining interests preference over the well-being of hard working Alaskans and the coastal communities dependent upon the productivity of these rivers. The State has oversimplified the complexity of this international issue and without binding agreements in place, Alaskans remain unprotected.”
Both Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission and the Central Council of the Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska (Tlingit & Haida) questioned the amount of collaboration between government and Tribes. Tlingit & Haida, from its own press release, has not been engaged with the Alaska-British Columbia Bilateral Working Group or its Technical Working Group on Monitoring since 2018, which diminishes the collaborative effort described in the data report. Added Olsen, “We found out about the report in the news. Where is the collaboration?”
Commissioner Brune of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation said "The data has not shown a measurable impact to Alaskan waters from historical mining activities in British Columbia." However, the data does show higher Arsenic levels downstream of Tulsequah Chief Mine than Arsenic levels upstream of the mine. Guy Archibald of Southeast Alaska Conservation Council: "The watersheds cover 43,100 square miles. On the Taku, one study cited in the report was only 11 samples—6 on the same day, 2 within 1 week and 2 more within 20 days. This is not what I would call representative."
“You can’t divide up the watershed like this, said Chris Zimmer of Rivers Without Borders. “Alaskans care about and depend upon the British Columbia side of the transboundary watersheds. Salmon and water pollution know no borders.”
“Why the rush to show no harm?” asked Sylvia Banie, Vice President of the Organized Village of Saxman “We seem to keep allowing a few people to profit for a short time while the rest of us pay the ultimate price.” Lovie Brock of Wrangell Cooperative Association, “Will it take another Mount Polley disaster to wake us up? Regarding the Stikine, Wrangell hasn’t had a salmon derby for several years.”
“Make no mistake, Tlingit & Haida supports responsible mining,” said Tlingit & Haida Tribal President Richard Peterson. “Many of our Tribal citizens work in mining, but these mines must operate safely and responsibly and with best practices and strict liability for harm to the environment.”