Transboundary Waters Study Draws Conclusions, Plea for Further Study

There’s been no measurable impact to Alaska waters from historic mining activities in British Columbia, a water quality report on the salmon-rich transboundary rivers by environmental agencies for the governments of Alaska and British Columbia has concluded.

The report, a collaborative four-year effort of the governments industry, indigenous nations and the public, will serve as baseline data to assess potential impacts from future industrial activity, says Alaska Commissioner of Environmental Conservation Jason Brune.

“Water and wildlife don’t recognize borders, and so it’s up to all of us to protect our critical and priceless watersheds regardless of jurisdiction,” said George Heyman, minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy for the BC government.

The governments stated in the final BC-Alaska Transboundary Rivers Monitoring Program report that the Stikine, Taku and Unuk transboundary watersheds continue to support and sustain aquatic life in conjunction with mining and other land use activities. But for now, they said, the transboundary rivers monitoring program has concluded its work.

The sampling program conducted from 2017 through 2019 included physical habitat assessments, physical and chemical analyses of water and sediment, and chemical analyses of fish and invertebrates collected from all three watersheds.

Water and sediment samples were tested for cadmium, copper, selenium, zinc, arsenic iron, manganese and nickel.

While some water sample results exceeded B.C. water quality guidelines at B.C. sample sites, there were no excedances of Alaska water quality standards for all samples taken downstream of the BC-Alaska border, the report states.

Sediment samples in both jurisdictions identified sites with concentrations of some elements above guidelines, with those elevated levels largely attributed to naturally occurring mineral deposits in several areas.

Testing results also showed significant agreement between data collected by government and data collected by the mining industry.

The testing program was initiated out of a 2015 memorandum of understanding and statement of cooperation agreement signed by the governor of Alaska and premier of British Columbia, which called for creation of the collaborative working group, including partnerships with local indigenous nations, industries and environmental groups.

Now that the report has been released, it is being challenged by Alaska’s Indigenous peoples and environmental groups, who say the report should not be an end unto itself, but the beginning of the ongoing collection of data to protect the habitat that wild salmon depend on for survival.

The report should be a statement of ongoing cooperation, rather than a statement of conclusion, said Fred Olsen Jr., executive director of the Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission.

“What a statement to say that the water can support aquatic life,” Olsen said. “There are fewer, smaller salmon. There are no more salmon derbies in Ketchikan, where I grew up. I guess you could say it’s laughable, but it’s serious.”

What is needed, said Olsen, is federal involvement by the United States and Canadian governments.

Of major concern to salmon harvesters, tribal entities and environmental groups are the acid drainage still flowing from the Tulsequah Chief mine, which has been shut down for several decades, and potential adverse environmental impacts of other existing and planned mines abutting these transboundary rivers on the Canadian side of the border. The BC government is already working to stop acid drainage from the mine, but it is a complex effort which will take several years to complete.

“The state has oversimplified the complexity of this international issue and without binding agreements in place, Alaskans remain unprotected,” said Jill Weitz, director of Salmon Beyond Borders.

SEITC and the Central Council of the Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska are questioning the amount of actual collaboration between the governments and tribes. According to the Central Council, it has not been engaged with the Alaska-BC bilateral working group or its technical working group on monitoring since 2018, which therefore diminishes the collaborative effort described in the data report.

While Brune said the data shows no measurable impact to Alaskan waters from historical mining activities in BC, the data does show higher arsenic levels downstream from the Tulsequah Chief mine than arsenic levels upstream from the mine. The BC government has begun an effort to put a halt to acid draining from the mine, but it is a long-term process.

The watersheds cover 43,100 square miles, said Guy Archibald, mining and clean water program manager for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.

“On the Taku, one study cited in the report was only 10 samples: six on the same day, two within one week and two more within 20 days,” he said. “That is not what I would call representative.”

While many tribal members work in mining, “these mines must operate safely and responsibly and with best practices and strict liability for harm to the environment,” said Richard Peterson president of the Tlingit & Haida Central Council.