Clarification: This article has been updated to clarify statements made concerning the impacts of mining operations in British Columbia on Alaska’s waters.
Environmental groups and a consortium of tribal governments are renewing a push for international action on mining activity in transboundary watersheds, calling for a temporary halt to new mining until Canada’s environmental protections are strengthened.
Salmon advocacy group Salmon Beyond Borders and the Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission began circulating a resolution Tuesday, which they hope to eventually present to government officials in both the U.S. and Canada. The resolution is an open petition, but SBB sent special requests to tribal and municipal governments asking for an opportunity to give presentations to city officials asking them to pass official resolutions of their own, according to Jill Weitz, the Salmon Beyond Borders’ director.
“We’ve arrived at this point for crashing numbers of salmon,” Weitz told the Empire Friday. “There has to be a pause on the permitting of new mines until there is a formal process in place that allows Alaska to have a seat at the table.”
Salmon returns in Southeast Alaska have been poor in recent years, and Weitz cited pollution from old mining operations in British Columbia as a contributing factor. British Columbia’s environmental regulations with regards to mining are weaker than Alaksa’s, Weitz said, but the state is affected by the downstream pollution without seeing the economic benefits of the mining operation.
Weitz said there Alaska’s waters haven’t experienced extreme downstream pollution from current mining operations in British Columbia, but transboundary pollution in Idaho and Montana show the need for stronger protections.
Transboundary mining refers to mining at the headwaters of waters that flow across borders, and there are defunct mines in British Columbia that have been leaking pollutants for decades. The Tulsequah Chief Mine on the Taku River has been the subject of litigation recently as several companies that promised to clean the site went bankrupt, leaving the provincial government of British Columbia to use taxpayer dollars for clean-up efforts.
The resolution and the request for meetings were only recently sent out, Weitz said, but the group hopes to generate broad support for the initiative and present the signed version to government officials in October. Weitz said the resolution was not anti-mining, but said the environmental standards for waters in Canada should be equal to those downstream considering the impacts.
The resolution was being circulated among community members, businesses, academics and technical experts, Weitz said.
The resolution asks President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to “support an immediate temporary halt to permitting, exploration, development, and expansion of Canadian mines along shared Alaska-B.C. salmon rivers until a binding international agreement on watershed protections, developed by all jurisdictions in these shared transboundary watersheds and consistent with the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, is implemented.”
Joel Jackson, president of the Organized Village of Kake said the government had received the request, and it would be up for debate before the tribal council soon. He couldn’t say how the council would vote but said the issue was well-known.
“One of our council members has been following it for us,” Jackson said. “We’ve been aware of the problem because it involves three of our major salmon rivers.”
Jackson said he hoped the campaign would raise awareness about the issue among the general public.
“I hope everyone that sees this, whether in the news or social media they weigh in,” Jackson said. “This is a really big problem that’s going to be coming at us shortly. I hope everybody that comes across this will email (the Congressional Delegation), letting them know how important these king salmon rivers are for Southeast Alaska.
The resolution calls for a temporary ban on mining in Canada near the headwaters of the Taku, Stikine and Unuk rivers, all of which flow into Southeast Alaska. The resolution also calls for a permanent ban on “toxic waste dams” or dammed lakes containing waste from the mining process, like the Mount Polley Dam that failed in 2014 creating the largest environmental disaster in Canadian history, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Company. The renewed push for action coincided with the seven-year anniversary of the disaster, Weitz said, and the issue already had broad support from Alaska’s Congressional delegation.
“(Sen. Lisa Murkoski, R-Alaska) in particular, has done an exceptional amount,” Weitz said. “(Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska) continues to raise this issue in meetings and with Canadian counterparts, and (Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska) hosted a briefing on this issue in April.”
Sullivan and Murkowski were among eight U.S. Senators to sign a 2019 letter to the Premier of British Columbia John Horgan urging closer monitoring of transboundary waters and hosted a round table discussion with international agencies in Juneau later that year.
Rob Sanderson Jr., 3rd Vice President Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska and chair of SEITC, said the delegation had indeed done good work on this issue, but he was critical of government response to the matter.
“There’s so much on the plate we need to address,” Sanderson said. “If the state’s not willing to work with us, we’ll take it to our federal partners, the B.C. government.”
It was important the U.N. declaration on Indigenous rights is recognized, Sanderson said, as the inclusion of indigenous communities was essential for the management of the environment.
“They could take a few lessons from us,” Sanderson said of mining companies, “how we manage our landscapes.”
City and Borough of Juneau City Clerk Beth McEwen told the Empire the city had received the resolution and a request for a presentation, but that the matter had not yet been scheduled for discussion before any official bodies. McEwen noted several members of the city government were in Fairbanks attending the Alaska Municipal League conference.
Kim Stanker, city clerk for the City of Ketchikan, also said the resolution had been received but not yet scheduled.
Sanderson said he believes local municipalities, Juneau and Ketchikan in particular, should show support for the issue.
“It seems like a lot of the municipalities sit back and wait for the tribes to do the work,” Sanderson said. “We’re happy to do it, it’s more than just dollar signs for us, it’s about protecting our way of life that we’ve had for 12,000 years.”
• Contact reporter Peter Segall at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.