An ending could be in sight for the potential cleanup of a major polluter of the Taku river after the Tulsequah Chief mine’s bankrupt owners, Chieftain Metals, receivership period came to an end last week. The move now opens the doors for B.C to move forward with the estimated $100 million clean up efforts after it spent decades stuck in political and legal limbo.
“There is no more delay now, it’s time to get moving,” said Rob Sanderson, the chair of the Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission. “The headwaters are in British Columbia, but we’re at the receiving end of it — and we’re going to fight to the nail.”
Located just under 20 miles from the Canada-US border in northwestern British Columbia and only around 40 miles from Juneau, the abandoned copper, lead and zinc mine has been leaking toxic acid mine drainage into the Tulsequah River — a main tributary of the Taku river and a prime Alaska salmon habitat — for more than six decades since the mine’s original closure in 1957.
Since then, two attempts have been made to revive the mine, but both were met with failure and bankruptcy in the process, the latter company filing in 2016 by the Chieftain Metals company which faced $27 million CAD ($20 million) in debt according to the Canadian Broadcasting Company.
The company’s main creditor, West Face Capital, has since been trying to sell the mine to recoup some of its losses via a receivership process but were without any bites before it reached before it reach its Ontario Superior Court-ordered end to receivership on Aug. 11.
The mine’s negative impact has been wide-reaching not only to the natural environment in B.C. and Southeast Alaska but also to the Alaska Native tribes who have bordered the watersheds for centuries and continue to rely on them to this day and even prompted the The Taku River Tlingit First Nation to file a suit in the Supreme Court of British Columbia to stop the mine. Rivers Without Borders also commissioned a 2016 report that found an estimated one million litres of Tulsequah River contaminated water flows into the Taku daily.
“It’s vital to the area and even more so to the culture and people that live around the Taku— you can’t put a dollar value on these river systems,” Sanderson said.
The recent ending of the receivership now wipes clear any previous hold-ups that have prevented the government from taking action. So far, the only statement made by the province is its acknowledgment of the receivership process’s conclusion, but no cleanup timeline or establishment of a funding source for the efforts.
The B.C government has expressed concern in the past for the mine’s negative effect on the environment and has taken multiple preemptive measures in preparation for the receivership to end. In 2020, B.C. issued a draft cleanup plan for the mine and has also been on the mine site for the past three summers conducting studies, According to the British Columbia website for the mine, road and other infrastructure repairs were made to the site in preparation for future clean-up work in 2020. It also established a no-staking reserve under the Mineral Tenure Act over the Tulsequah Mine area in 2017, which means mineral rights cannot be re-staked as long as the reserve remains in place.
Sanderson said the receivership ending points to a larger picture than just the cleanup of the one mine, but rather sets a precedent for how B.C. will plan to deal with other mines whose effects reach across boundaries.
“There is always hope, but this is going to be a tale of what the B.C. government is going to do about mine cleanup going forward,” he said. “There’s a lot riding on the line and it’s time for action and we’re going to continue to push because we want to see change.”
Sanderson urged the public to continue putting pressure on the B.C. government to follow through with its commitments and prompt action along with pressuring U.S. government entities to take action well. He said if that happens, he believes the clean-up will happen.
Nikki Skuce, the co-chair of the BC Mining Law Reform Network, a collective of 30 local, provincial and national organizations that advocates for changes to mineral development laws and mining practices to be more environmentally sound, said she thinks it’s “amazing” to see the receivership has ended but agrees that more action needs to continue.
“It’s been polluting for 65 years and it’s a long overdue retirement for the mine for sure,” she said.” I think that it’s definitely an important milestone because now there are no excuses for moving forward and finding solutions to protect the watersheds.”
She said she does think that the government is committed to the cleanup, and said it has moved forward with preparation in the past few years to get options and prices on the table, but there are still many questions that need to be answered and she said she hopes they start communicating about plans soon.
“It’s such a tiny little mine and it’s so remote and hard to access, so they have for the last couple of years, they have been doing things and I think that’s all promising but we hope to see in the near future with what are the plans and when do they plan to move forward,” she said.
“This is really good news,” said Chris Zimmer, the Alaska campaign director for Rivers Without Borders, about the receivership ending. “The biggest obstacle to clean up the mine is now gone —this is a big step forward and takes a huge obstacle away.”
Zimmer, along with Breanna Walker, the director of Salmon Beyond Borders, said they urge the B.C. come forward with a statement that it plans to move forward as the cleanup is already long overdue.
“It is long past time for all of us connected to these special places to have a seat at the table,” Walker said in an email message to the Empire.
“This damn thing really needs to be cleaned up as soon as possible,” he said. “We want to see a clear plan with deadlines, we want to see what the plans are, how are they going to fund it. This hopefully means in a few years we get to move on from this issue and stop having to do the massive effort of getting the B.C. to do the right thing.”
Multiple messages sent to the B.C. government were not returned.
We’re thrilled that the last bureaucratic hurdles are cleared and we urge the B.C. government to move quickly to fix this decades-long mess,” Walker said. “While we are optimistic this source of acid mine waste contamination will soon be brought under control, it does not obscure the fact this took far too long and much larger problems loom on the horizon.”