Rhetoric ratchets up in transboundary mining battle

Critics of British Columbia’s transboundary mining activities were shot down recently by one top U.S. official, so on Monday they appealed to another, asking for harsher consequences if concerns aren’t addressed.

The group petitioned the U.S. Secretary of the Interior to investigate Canadian mines on the Unuk, Stikine and Taku watersheds. If the Secretary finds the mines violate international treaties for endangered wildlife, the president has the power to authorize trade sanctions against Canada.

Meanwhile in British Columbia, a highly-critical May 3 report from the B.C. Auditor General has Canadians rethinking mining regulation.

Mount Polley, the site of a 2014 environmental disaster, has been reissued a permit to conduct full operations.

B.C.’s Minister of Energy and Mines Bill Bennett, no stranger to criticism from Alaskans, has announced he will not run for reelection 2017.

 

Alaskans call for federal help

In early May, Alaska’s congressional delegation penned a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry asking for the State Department’s help on transboundary mines. The delegation asked Kerry to look into referring the issue to the International Joint Commission, a U.S.-Canadian cooperative group tasked with settling transboundary water disputes.

The request was denied in a June 14 response, but that has not deterred Southeast’s salmon and tribal groups from seeking federal help.

In an additional measure to bring the issue to federal mediation, a coalition of conservation and Alaska Native groups have gone to the Department of the Interior, invoking its duties under a federal law to investigate six proposed mines according to a June 27 letter. The mines “pose a substantial threat of directly reducing populations of Pacific salmon and steelhead trout,” the coalition wrote in the 91-page “Pelly Petition.”

The Pelly Petition argues that proposed transboundary mines violate international treaties by putting salmon, grizzly bear and woodland caribou at risk. The coalition is appealing to the Department of the Interior’s duties to investigate activities affecting international treaties on endangered wildlife Southeast Alaska Conservation Council’s Guy Archibald explained.

“The KSM (Kerr Sulphurets Mitchell) mine’s own environmental impact statement states that it’s going to have a pretty significant effect on the woodland caribou and grizzly bear populations,” Archibald said. “What we’re doing with the Pelly Petition is to basically say, ‘Look, federal government, if you’re not willing to pursue an option under the IJC (International Joint Commission) which you don’t like, there are options that are even worse. … We see this as a way of putting additional pressure on the U.S. federal government to see that the International Joint Commission is actually the correct venue and way to deal with preventing any kind of dispute across the border.”

The Kerr Sulphurets Mitchell mine could produce more than 10 billion pounds of copper, 133 million ounces of silver, 38 million ounces of gold and 200 million pounds of molybdenum. It would also produce more than 2 billion tons of tailings, and one of its three open pit mines would be about as deep as the deepest open pit mine in the world today.

Conservation groups and Alaska’s congressional delegation are worried that talks between the U.S. and Canada lack legally-binding language. Bennett, who’s sending a delegation to Alaska this summer to talk transboundary issues, says mediation from the International Joint Commission is unnecessary.

“The IJC was set up originally and its sole purpose today is to respond to situations where Canada and the U.S. or their subnational jurisdictions cannot get along on some particular aspect,” Bennett told the Empire during a June 30 phone interview. “It is necessary for those who want federal government to be involved in this to paint a picture that B.C. is not doing everything it should be doing. … We are working out the issues quite well, I think. … We have a whole list of improvements made to our processes, so I think what we’re doing is working. The IJC is meant for situations that are dysfunctional; this relationship between Alaska and BC is far from dysfunctional. … I know folks want the federal government to get involved, but they’ve got the wrong information.”

The Pelly Petition refers to the 1978 Pelly Amendment to the American Fisheries act which gives the federal government power to enact economic sanctions against treaty-violating countries.

“We could start putting tariffs on our exports, we could restrict their imports. Nobody really wants to do this,” Archibald said. “You can imagine the American farmer wouldn’t be too happy if we cannot export cheese or whatever to Canada. Basically both federal governments view the IJC as a bad option because it takes the decision making out of their hands. But what we’re setting this up as is ‘Here’s an even worse option (through the Pelly Amendment) so maybe the IJC is starting to look a little better to you guys.’”

The coalition of petitioners is still waiting for a response from Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell.

 

Auditor General’s report

criticizes BC regulation

On May 3, the B.C. Auditor General’s Office, a Legislature-appointed but independent office tasked with investigating government finance and performance, released a report finding “major gaps in resources, planning and tools,” in B.C.’s mining regulation. The report states “almost every one of our expectations for a robust compliance and enforcement program within the Ministry of Energy and Mines and the Ministry of Environment were not met.”

Among the report’s many claims is that B.C.’s financial security deposits for major mines are under-secured by more than $1.2 billion.

Bennett said the report’s findings indicate a lack of industry knowledge, adding that the company whose liabilities are most underfunded, Teck Mining Company, has a great reputation.

“The company that does not have dollar for dollar in for financial securities, the biggest amount of this $1.2 billion, is one company called Teck, and they have a stellar reputation in terms of sustainability,” Bennett said. “When the staff of the ministry decide how much reclamation security we actually have to have, they take into account the reputation of the company just the same as an insurer if you’re trying to determine how much faith to have in the person who’s buying the insurance. … So you don’t have to have every single penny in reclamation securities in place in order to know the company is going to do its job in terms of reclamation if they’re already doing their job and they’re very solvent. The accountants who did the report didn’t really understand the mining industry.”

The auditor reports the Ministry of Energy and Mines is ripe for what they call “regulatory capture,” which “occurs when the regulator, created to act in the public interest, instead serves the interests of the industry.” The report states the “Ministry of Energy and Mine’s role to promote mining development is diametrically opposed to compliance and enforcement. This framework, of having both activities within Ministry of Energy and Mines, creates an irreconcilable conflict. Because compliance and enforcement is the last line of defence against environmental degradation, business as usual cannot continue.”

The report cites low levels of prosecution activity, regulatory resources that fall below industry standards and a marked preference for giving informal recommendations and advice which are not recorded as evidence of the ministry placing industry over regulation.

Bennett bristles at the charge of regulatory capture.

“It’s a very silly suggestion,” he said. “The only person who promotes mining in our government is me. I am the minister and I am not the statutory decision maker. I don’t make the decisions about who gets permits or who gets investigated, I don’t make decisions about how much financial security is in place for reclamation; those are all made by professional public servants under the terms of our Legislature, so it is a suggestion that is really offensive to people who work for the B.C. government.”

A link to the auditor’s report can be found on the Empire website.

 

Mount Polley reopens to full production

The Auditor General conducted its investigation in response to a 2014 disaster at Mount Polley mine which released 24 million cubic meters of waste and water into nearby lakes and rivers, setting off an environmental disaster.

On June 23, Mount Polley Mine was cleared to reopen under full production, worrying some Alaska conservation groups. Archibald thinks this points to B.C.’s willingness to place business over environment.

“This was done without a long-term water management plan in place, prior to the promised revision on mining regulations and flies in the face of placing safety over profit,” Archibald wrote in a June 24 email to the Empire. “This action is a betrayal of everything that has been said by B.C. and should scare every Alaskan.”

Mount Polley was operating under restricted conditions since last year, and was recently allowed to continue under normal operations with the completion of a reinforced tailings pit.

Bennett, who travelled to Alaska in August 2015 to meet with Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott and Alaskan conservation groups, has supported the decision to reopen the mine.

“That company has spent over $70 million, way beyond any reclamation security they had in place,” Bennett said. “If you want to use Mount Polley as an example, you could use it as an example of how the system actually works.”

 

Timeline:

May 3: BC Auditor General Carol Bellringer releases B.C. mines audit. From report: “We found almost every one of our expectations for a robust compliance and enforcement program within the Ministry of Energy and Mines and the Ministry of Energy were not met.”

May 12: Alaska congressional delegation sends letter to Secretary of State John Kerry requesting the State Department look into mediation from the International Joint Commission.

June 14: In a response to the Alaska delegation, the State Department says it will not pursue transboundary mediation through the International Joint Commission.

June 21: B.C. Minister of Energy and Mines Bill Bennett announces he will not be running for reelection in 2017.

June 23: Mount Polley Mine, site of a 2014 environmental disaster, is approved to go back into full production without a legally-required long term water cleanup plan.

June 27: An Alaskan coalition pens Pelly Petition, invoking Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell’s duties to investigate transboundary mines.

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