Efforts Increase to Protect Transboundary Rivers from Adverse Impacts

British Columbia Minister of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation Bruce Ralston is moving to boost communications with Alaska to collaborate further on protect habitat in the salmon-rich Stikine Unuk and Taku rivers flowing into Southeast Alaska.

Ralston said in correspondence to the Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission (SEITC) in June that the province is committed to ensuring that the effect of mining projects proposed within British Columbia are appropriately assessed in environmental assessment and permitting processes, including appropriate consideration of downstream and cumulative effects.

Six years ago, BC and Alaska signed a memorandum of understanding based on resolving mine pollution issues on the transboundary waters. They also agreed to enhance engagement on the issue with indigenous nations in BC and Alaska Native tribes.

Ralston told the SEITC on June 11 that his staff would connect with SEITC soon to arrange a meeting to identify gaps in current engagements.

Commercial, sport and subsistence fisheries, as well as the future of mining, are of economic and environmental concern to residents living in both BC and Alaska. Discussion has been underway for years on whether fisheries and mines can co-exist without having a severe adverse impact on fisheries. Backers of Canadian mining projects in Alaska have maintained that modern technology would allow for mine development that would not damage fish habitat.

Teck Resources, which is the responsible party for cleanup and closure of the Tulsequah Chief mine, has committed over $1.5 million toward reclamation efforts at that mine site, which has been running acid rock drainage into the Taku River for decades. The Tulsequah Chief was initially owned by Cominco, which later merged with Teck to become Teck Cominco and is now known as Teck Resources. The mine itself has not operated since 1957.

Staff of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and their BC counterparts have been meeting on a regular basis regarding the mine cleanup.

Last October, Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice ruled to end the long receivership process for Chieftain Metals, owner of the Tulsequah Chief Mine. Without that decision, the BC government was prevented from taking specific steps to assume responsibility for the cleanup. The court did, however, give Chieftain Metals’ largest creditor, West Face Capital, until August 2022 to find a buyer for the mine and petition the court to resume the receivership process.

A recent article in The Narwhal, the publication of a non-profit investigative group of journalists in Victoria, BC, quoted an email from Ralston stating: “The Chief Gold Commissioner established a no-staking reserve under the Mineral Tenure Act over the Tulsequah Mine area in 2017. As long as the no-staking reserve remains in place, mineral rights cannot be re-staked should they forfeit or return to the Crown.”

On June 14, the SEITC and two environmental entities issued a statement stating that they’re cautiously encouraged by efforts to date regarding the Tulsequah Chief, but that there’s still more to be done.

“We recognize that British Columbia is moving to take over responsibility for the cleanup and closure of the Tulsequah Chief mine site, but we’re largely in the dark as to specific details, timelines, funding, and BC’s long term plans for the lower Taku River area,” SEITC executive director Frederick Olsen, Jr, said. “This is a cautionary tale of the industry for us downstream.”