Transboundary Waterways Study Draws Conclusions; Tribes Say It’s a Beginning, Not an End

A water quality report on salmon-rich transboundary rivers by environmental agencies for the governments of Alaska and British Columbia concludes there has been no measurable impact to Alaska waters from historic mining activities in British Columbia.

The 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 said in their 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. For now though, they said, the transboundary rivers monitoring program has concluded its work.

However, tribal and environmental entities in Southeast Alaska, disagree, saying the report should be the beginning, rather than the end of studies to assure that the watersheds remain viable as salmon habitat.

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,” Tlingit & Haida Central Council President Richard Peterson said.

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

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.

The report 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.

What is needed, said Fred Olsen Jr., executive director of the Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission (SEITC), is federal involvement by the United States and Canada.

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.

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

According to the Central Council of the Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, they have not been engaged in the project’s water monitoring since 2018, which diminishes the collaborative effort described in the data report.