Gov. Bill Walker and British Columbia Premier Christy Clark signed a Memorandum of Understanding Wednesday morning committing to cooperation on transboundary issues, particularly related to concerns about mines on the Canadian side of the border that share waterways with near Southeast Alaska.
The MOU will create a Bilateral Working Group on the Protection of Transboundary Waters that will facilitate the exchange of best practices, marine safety, workforce development, transportation links and joint visitor industry promotion. It will also explore other areas for cooperation such as natural resource development, fisheries, trade and investment and climate change adaptation.
The neighboring U.S. state and Canadian province will work together on water quality monitoring, scientific information exchanges, resource sharing and facilitating access to information and soliciting input from First Nations, Alaska Native Tribes, and other stakeholders.
Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott will lead the Alaska side of the working group and the Minister of Environment and Minister of Energy and Mines will lead the BC side.
“As our next door neighbor, Canada plays a significant role in many Alaska industries, including trade, transportation, and tourism,” Walker said. “This MOU underscores that connection, and I thank British Columbia Premier Clark for her support and cooperation in advancing this important relationship.”
In an interview with the Alaska Journal of Commerce, B.C. Minister of Energy and Mines Bill Bennett said the MOU signifies a “change in how we do business” with Alaska.
“How we were doing business was the state and province cooperated on mine approvals and permitting that takes place in British Columbia that has potential to impact Alaska,” he said. “But there wasn’t very much public awareness of that relationship and it was incredibly difficult for tribes and conservation groups and fishing groups to get information on our processes. We realized that was a shortcoming of our approach and Alaska realized they needed to communicate more with Alaskans on the opportunities the state has to be involved in our process.”
There was initially some confusion among the Southeast stakeholders who have been pushing for action on transboundary issues. They had been presented the draft of a statement of cooperation on Nov. 16 by Mallott and told they had two weeks to provide comments to the state.
After the announcement, Salmon Beyond Borders, a coalition of Southeast stakeholders representing tribes, fishing and conservation groups, released statements blasting the timing of the signing and the nonbinding nature of the agreement.
A spokesperson from the governor’s office clarified that the MOU signed Wednesday was not the one presented to the stakeholders for comment Nov. 16, and that the comment period has been extended to Dec. 11.
The MOU signed Wednesday is the “umbrella agreement,” Bennett said, which creates the working group that will facilitate the access and cooperation between the two jurisdictions.
The issue of transboundary mines came to a head during the Aug. 4, 2014, Mount Polley mine tailings disaster that spilled millions of gallons of mine waste into the Cariboo region of British Columbia, polluting several lakes and watersheds that feed into Southeast Alaska.
Concerns over mine waste polluting Alaska watersheds have been elevated by several proposed cross-border mines, particularly the proposed KSM mine near the Unuk River watershed that will also require a large tailings dam structure; there is also ongoing acid rock drainage flowing into a tributary of the Taku River from the abandoned Talsequah Chief Mine.
After Bennett visited the site in August, government agencies issued a letter to the owners of the mine Nov. 10 that they have 90 days to come up with a plan to stop the acid rock drainage. Although the drainage has been ongoing for years, tests by several government agencies have found that fish in the Tulsequah River are not being affected by the discharge.
Regarding the Tulsequah mine, Bennett said the company has told the province it will have a plan to improve the site but that it will stop short of reopening the water treatment plant because the small exploration company doesn’t have the financing.
• Andrew Jensen is managing editor of the Alaska Journal of Commerce. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.