In this October 2018 photo, Bjorn Dihle inspects the acid mine drainage flowing into the Tulsequah River from a containment pond filled by effluent from the Tulsequah Chief Mine in British Columbia, Canada. (Courtesy Photo | Chris Miller)

In this October 2018 photo, Bjorn Dihle inspects the acid mine drainage flowing into the Tulsequah River from a containment pond filled by effluent from the Tulsequah Chief Mine in British Columbia, Canada. (Courtesy Photo | Chris Miller)

Tulsequah Chief Mine moves closer to clean up

Who’ll foot the bill is an open question.

A recent court case has environmentalists cautiously optimistic about cleanup efforts at the Tulsequah Chief Mine.

The mine, which is southeast of Juneau in British Columbia, Canada, which has been leaking pollutants into the Taku River for decades. A Canadian court in October discharged the mine’s current owner Chieftain Metals from receivership meaning the provincial government of British Columbia can now take actions to clean the site, something regional and environmental groups have been seeking for decades.

Chieftain went bankrupt while trying to rehabilitate the mine in 2016. Since then, its main creditor, West Face Capital, has been trying to sell the mine. The court decision ended receivership over Chieftain but gave West Face an additional two years to find another buyer, according to the British Columbian government’s webpage.

The provincial government has already taken some actions to begin clean-up and put up over $1 million towards the effort but British Columbia’s own final remediation plan says the overall clean-up effort will take roughly $100 million Canadian dollars, more than $76 million, for the multi-year clean-up process. Who’ll foot that bill, is still an open question.

Chris Zimmer, executive director of environmental group Rivers Without Borders, said it shouldn’t be the Canadian taxpayers, and the mine’s historical owner Teck Resources is responsible under Canadian law.

“Teck is clearly on the hook for cleanup costs here,” Zimmer told the Empire, citing a section of the BC Environmental Management Act that holds past owners and or contributors to environmental pollution liable for future clean-up.

The mine has actually operated since the 1950s, but according to the government of British Columbia mine effluent and acid rock drainage has been discharging into the Tulsequah River since at least 1957 when the mine stopped operating. The mine was abandoned until 1997 when a company called Redfern Resources acquired the property and permits to develop a mine on the site, according to British Columbia.

Redfern, like Chieftain Metals after it, went into receivership in 2009 after failing to develop the mine site. Chieftain acquired the mine in 2010 and was placed into receivership in 2016 following its failure to find enough investors to develop the site, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Company. CBC reported in 2016 Chieftain was $27 million CAD ($20 million) in debt.

In August, the British Columbia Ministry of Energy released a statement voicing support for a clean-up effort and said the provincial government had committed $1.5 CAD ($1.2 million) and begun infrastructural work at the site over the summer. The mine is in the territory of the Taku River Tlingit First Nation and British Columbia is coordinating its clean-up operation with the tribal government.

“TRTFN are committed to pursuing remediation efforts at the mine and do not support attempts to sell the property with the intent to re-open the mine. The mine did not prove successful in the past and we don’t believe anything has changed,” said Jackie Caldwell, mining officer for TRTFN in an email.

Caldwell said they had been working with British Columbia on the remediation plan and expects the government to uphold their commitment to the plan.

“Future funds to implement the remediation is in BC’s hands and we expect them to find ways to continue this work,” Caldwell said. “We have already started so much and worked together so well, TRTFN would not want to see that work paused.”

The end of receivership means British Columbia can move more aggressively to begin cleaning the site, Zimmer said, but so far neither a timeline for the cleanup nor a source of funding have been established by the government. Section 45 of the Environmental Management Act clearly shows past owners as liable for future cleanup, Zimmer said, and Teck should be an obvious source of funding. *END

In an email, Teck spokesperson Chris Stannell said the company supports British Columbia and TRTFN current reclamation plan for the site.

“We understand that a number of ongoing legal proceedings with respect to the site will need to come to a conclusion as a long-term approach is finalized. However, as this process moves forward, we are supportive of the Province and the Taku River Tlingit First Nation’s interim reclamation actions at the site,” Stanell said.

The British Columbia government may be moving in the right direction, but until Teck is actually held financially responsible the bill is likely to fall to Canadian taxpayers, said Jill Weitz, director of Salmon Beyond Borders. Weitz was skeptical that was going to happen because, she said, the British Columbia government wasn’t willing to agitate one of Canada’s largest resource companies.

In this October 2018 photo, leaves and rocks coated in acid mine drainage from the Tulsequah Chief Mine flow into a creek in the Tulsequah River in British Columbia, Canada. (Courtesy Photo | Chris Miller)

In this October 2018 photo, leaves and rocks coated in acid mine drainage from the Tulsequah Chief Mine flow into a creek in the Tulsequah River in British Columbia, Canada. (Courtesy Photo | Chris Miller)

“There’s not an incentive for (British Columbia) to hold accountable the historic owner,” Weitz told the Empire.

British Columbia’s chief executive Premier John Horgan has made statements about holding polluters responsible, she said, and it was a recent promise in his reelection campaign.

“He’s been saying for the last three years that they’re committed to doing so, but that has yet to unfold and take shape,” Weitz said.

While she praised the ultimate outcome of the court case, she said West Face being allowed another two years to find a buyer for the site meant the cleanup could still be delayed legally.

“No one’s going to buy this mine,” she said. “They’re on their third owner right now. Companies have come in to clean up and restart this site and learned very quickly that it was too expensive and quite exhaustive to be working on such a remote site.”

British Columbia held elections in late October and in an email Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources spokesperson Kent Karemaker said all government of British Columbia communications are limited to health and safety inquiries during the interregnum period.

According to British Columbia website for the mine, road and other infrastructure repairs were made to the site in preparation for future clean-up work over the summer. Weather conditions prevented a lidar sensor survey from being taken, but once that survey is complete topographic information would be used to further develop a plan, the site says.

After decades of trying, Zimmer says he’s hopeful there’ll finally be action in the near future, but it’s equally important he said the taxpayers not be forced to pay for the clean-up.

“Teck is the source of money for this,” he said. “That’s one way to lessen the hit on the (British Columbia) taxpayer.”

• Contact reporter Peter Segall at psegall@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.

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