A $2.3 trillion federal spending package approved by Congress this week includes money for everything from $900 billion in relief funds for the COVID-29 pandemic to over $4 million to help resolve transboundary water pollution issues in Southeast Alaska.
Tucked into the 2021 Consolidated Appropriations Act approved by both house of Congress on Monday, Dec. 21, is over $3.62 million for the U.S. Geological Survey to continue baseline water quality monitoring at the international border in Southeast Alaska, plus resolving mining and mining containment issues with British Columbia. Another $500,000 was allocated by the State Department to specifically expand its participation in transboundary mine issues.
A number of Southeast Alaska residents, along with fishermen, tribes and conservation groups have advocated for several decades to halt pollution from mines in place and planned along these salmon-rich transboundary waters, including the Tulsequah Chief mine, which continues to pour pollutants into tributaries to these rivers decades after it was closed.
British Columbia government officials committed in late 2020 to efforts to halt pollution from the Tulsequah Chief mine, but commercial fisheries entities, conservationists and tribal entities are also concerned about other mines in place and planned along those transboundary waters.
According to Jill Weitz, director of Salmon Beyond Borders, 80 percent of Southeast Alaska king salmon have historically come from the transboundary Taku, Stikine and Unuk rivers, yet by this spring in all three rivers, Chinook salmon populations will likely be listed as stocks of concern, as the mining industry grows along British Columbia’s transboundary waters.
Chris Zimmerman, center director of the U.S. Geological Survey Alaska Science Center, said that by working collaboratively interested parties will be better able to understand water quality in transboundary rivers to help resource managers and users make sound, science-based decisions. Rob Sanderson Jr., chair of the Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission, said that SEITC looks forward to development a true partnership between tribes and USGS.
Still Fred Olsen Jr., executive director of SEITC, voiced concern that none of that money was going directly to Southeast Alaska tribal entities. Tlingit and Haida tribes have for years called on the federal government for action on water pollutions issues under the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909. In 2015 the Tlingit and Haida began working to collect baseline water quality data, sediment sampling and water quality surveys on the Taku and Stikine rivers, then expanded their scope to sample the Alsek River near Yakutat and the Chilkat and Klehini rivers outside of Klukwan and Haines.
“Give us that $500,000 and we will see who does something,” Olsen said. “We are not against mining, but do it right.”