Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission
The British Columbia (BC) government this week announced that it will grant an exemption to Seabridge Gold, allowing a second extension to the 2014 Environmental Assessment Certificate. Seabridge was granted a “one-time” 5-year extension in March of 2019. One year later, Seabridge sought an emergency variance to the one-time rule and requested an additional 2 years to begin construction of the mine. Granting the extension allows Seabridge more time to advance the Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell mining project (KSM) , expected to be one of the largest open-pit mines in the world.
“We are very disappointed by this decision,” said Robert Sanderson Jr, Chair of the Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission (SEITC), formed in 2014 by 15 of southeast Alaska’s federally-recognized Tribal governments tasked to protect wild salmon and their communities from large-scale industrial mining development in the transboundary watersheds of rivers flowing into Alaska from British Columbia. That very same year, the Mount Polly tailings dam in British Columbia catastrophically failed despite being fewer than 20 years old. Southeast Alaska Tribes have many concerns about the Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell mining project’s potential to impact the Unuk and Nass Rivers, vital to the communities and culture in southeast Alaska for centuries.
Recently, British Columbia passed the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act (DRIPA) and is in the process of reviewing all laws and regulations in order to add the requirement that indigenous communities are meaningfully consulted on projects that may impact their lands, waters, or ways of life. Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission has requested a pause in all mine approvals until such time the new law is implemented and the ongoing problems with the permitting process in British Columbia are addressed and fixed.
“I guess this answers our request for a pause in British Columbia’s permitting process”, said Frederick Olsen, Jr, Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission Executive Director. “The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act was adopted 2 years ago yet there is still no clear direction for how the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act may be implemented. The law has changed but we’re stuck in the same old game. Our voice must be included to achieve real solutions.”
Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission submitted comments against the proposal for a “variance” to the one-time extension rule granting Seabridge a second extension. Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission cited misinformation in Seabridge’s application. Seabridge maintained in their application that they required another 2-year extension due to depressed metal prices and lack of ability to work on the project due to COVID-19. Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission pointed out that metal prices are not depressed and in fact have increased or stayed the same during that period. Further, British Columbia granted the mining industry an exemption to all COVID restrictions. Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission maintains the real reason Seabridge has been unable to advance the project is that they have failed to attract a major investor after over a decade and wants more time to do so. “Rubber-stamping a fact-free mine application over the objections of the people affected by the mine is another reason the mine permitting program in British Columbia has failed to protect our people and the rivers we depend on,'' stated Sanderson who is also 3rd Vice President of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska.
If built, the Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell mining project would dump billions of tons of acid generating waste rock in valleys draining directly into the Unuk River upstream of Alaska, flowing through Misty Fjords National Monument to the communities of Ketchikan and Saxman. The Project plans to capture all the water and treat it at rates predicted to be 119,000 gallons per minute before release into the Unuk River. The mine must successfully remove the predicted high level of Selenium liberated by acid generation. The treatment system will have to operate successfully for centuries, something never before attempted, let alone proven, at this scale.
The project's tailings will be dumped behind 3 huge earthen dams above the Nass River despite three consecutive reports from the British Columbia Auditor General's Office that the Ministries overseeing mining are unable or incapable of providing an adequate margin of safety for these types of projects. “Like the proposed Pebble Mine, the Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell mining project would be another wrong mine in the wrong place,” said Jennifer Hanlon, Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission’s Vice Chair representing Yakutat Tlingit Tribe. “The Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell mining project would be much larger than Pebble in wastewater management, having Mount Polley style tailings dams taller than Seattle’s Space Needle.”
One of the conditions attached to this decision is a requirement to consult with parties in moving the project forward. Much of the land and waters impacted by the Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell mining project lie within the current and traditional territories of Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshain nations spanning the border between Alaska and British Columbia. British Columbia is supposed to honor the boundaries that existed prior to the first contact between the Indigenous peoples and Europeans.
“We formally ask for this consultation to take place and that the talks be meaningful and respectful”, stated Sanderson, “Unlike the previous meetings where Seabridge just came here to talk down to us.” Added Olsen, “This tests whether British Columbia really means to honor its word in implementing the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act. We have seen promises before.”