Alaska lawmakers call for alliance with other states on Canadian mining issues

A group of Alaska lawmakers wants to team up with Montana and other U.S.-Canada border states in a push to protect Southeast watersheds they say are threatened by rapid Canadian mining development.

In a letter dated April 20 and released Friday, 10 lawmakers ask Gov. Bill Walker to work with other U.S. states and the State Department to further protections for Southeast’s salmon-bearing rivers. Canadian mining development, they say, has continued to put the region’s fishing and tourism industries in peril.

At least a dozen mining projects are moving forward or are operating in the border-crossing Taku, Stikine and Unuk river watersheds, according to Salmon Beyond Borders. Alaska lacks financial protection from any harm the projects could cause to salmon habitat, the lawmakers say.

“This issue is the greatest threat facing Alaska’s commercial fishing industry,” Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, said.

The call for federal intervention on transboundary mines isn’t new. In November 2017, Walker and Alaska’s Congressional delegation wrote then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, asking for mediation from the State Department. Similar letters were sent to Secretary of State John Kerry, but were shot down. Tillerson no longer heads the State Department. Environmental groups have been pushing for federal level talks for some time.

Several states are also lobbying for federal intervention to protect from transboundary mining pollution. Washington senators Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, both Democrats, have been vocal about Canadian mining issues. Federal talks over mining pollution on Montana’s Kootenai River have already begun at the State Department level.

But the tactic of partnering with other states to increase the visibility of the issue hasn’t gained steam. Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka and one of the state lawmakers who signed the letter to Walker, said it makes sense for Alaska to partner with these states.

“It sort of pools political capital. The issues Alaska is dealing with are not unique as far as water quality and transboundary waters with Canada, and if you’ve got potentially six U.S. senators asking for something of the State Department and the Trump administration instead of two, that’s a more powerful, compelling ask,” Kreiss-Tomkins said.

Those partnerships could help broker agreements for transboundary advocates’ biggest requests: money to clean up a potential disaster and funds for studies to determine the purity of rivers before mines are built. British Columbia lacks money for environmental cleanup, reports have shown. A 2016 investigation from the B.C. Auditor General found that B.C.’s financial security deposits for major mines are under-secured by more than $1.2 billion.

A lack of cleanup at the long-shuttered Tulsequah Chief Mine, which has polluted the Taku River for decades since its closure, serves as an example of what would happen if development is allowed to go on unchecked in Canada, Friday’s letter states. The mine’s previous owner filed for bankruptcy and it’s currently unclear who will pay to stop the mine from leaking acidic water into a tributary of the Taku River.

“It’s pretty obvious that they’re moving forward with the development of these mines at a pretty rapid pace. That’s concerning because we don’t have those financial safeguards in place right now,” Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan and another letter signer, told the Empire on Friday.

Alaska leaders, including Walker, have called for the brokering of financial assurances before. It would be up to the State Department and Global Affairs Canada, the State Department’s Canadian counterpart, to work out that agreement.

Any discussion between the two federal agencies would likely happen at twice-annual bilateral meetings between the State Department and Global Affairs Canada. The last meeting took place in late April, and a range of transboundary issues were discussed, according to a recent interview with a State Department official. But federal movement on transboundary issues is slow going. There hasn’t yet been any specific negotiations for financial assurances or funding for baseline water quality studies, which would be necessary to establish any pollution to Alaska waters.

Discussions over transboundary issues have become regular events, the official said, at the bilateral meetings. Lately, it has made sense to examine the issue in greater detail, the official said, partly because Alaska and Montana politicians have been vocal. A referral to the International Joint Commission would be one venue for mediation, but that would require agreement between both countries. IJC referral isn’t unheard of, according to the official, but it hasn’t yet happened in this case.

A statement provided to the Empire by a spokesperson for the State Department’s Western Hemisphere Affairs desk reads:

“In a meeting on April 26, 2018, in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Department of State shared its preliminary assessment of how we can enhance collaboration on the potential transboundary impacts of mining operations. This assessment included a review of concerns related to Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River system and the Taku, Stikine, and Unuk Rivers in northwest British Columbia and southeast Alaska. Global Affairs Canada will be reviewing this assessment, and Canada and the United States look forward to continued discussion.”

Representatives from Juneau environmental group Salmon Beyond Borders flew to Washington D.C. for those meetings. They were hoping for the State Department to make some concrete asks of Global Affairs Canada. Salmon Beyond Borders’ Heather Hardcastle applauded the recent letter from Alaska lawmakers.

Ortiz and Kreiss-Tomkins stressed that the Walker administration has been working hard on transboundary issues and is seemingly doing everything in its power. But they would both like protections for Southeast’s salmon watersheds to come a little quicker, especially with Southeast’s king salmon populations suffering.

“Talking is good, but from my perspective, action and binding agreements are needed to protect Alaska’s interests. And in particular, fishermen and subsistence users’ best interests,” Kreiss-Tomkins said.

Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott will host the third annual transboundary mining meeting June 1 in Juneau to update those interested in the issue. The meeting will be held from 10:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. at the Vocational Training and Resource Center on Hospital Drive.

• Contact reporter Kevin Gullufsen at 523-2228 and Follow him on Twitter at @KevinGullufsen.

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