It is a big week for Alaska’s capital city. Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan are in town to address the Alaska State Legislature, the United Fishermen of Alaska (UFA) Board of Directors, and all Alaskans. There are a number of issues on which the state of Alaska, including our elected decision makers at both the state and federal levels, can show unity. One of those critical issues is asking the U.S. federal government to defend Alaskan interests in the Alaska-British Columbia (B.C.) transboundary mining issue.
Throughout the last three years, much attention has been directed toward the more than 10 large-scale mining projects in various phases of development in Canada. These mines sit directly upstream from the rivers that flow into Southeast Alaska. These types of operations have the potential to harm salmon and threaten some of Alaska’s largest salmon runs, which sustain Southeast Alaskans’ way of life and the region’s powerhouse industries: commercial and sport fishing and tourism. The legislature has received great public support to protect our watersheds — in addition to thousands of individuals, over 100 Alaska tribal governments, state and national tribal organizations, municipalities, businesses, and commercial and sport fishing organizations have expressed concern. In response, I have introduce House Joint Resolution 9. HJR 9 calls on the U.S. federal government to work with the Canadian federal government “to investigate the long-term, regionwide downstream effects of proposed and existing industrial development and to develop measures to ensure that state resources are not harmed by upstream development in British Columbia.”
Because this is an international issue, the request is directed towards the U.S. State Department. We are calling on the federal government to unify with the people and government of Alaska, and to utilize their international tools to protect U.S. interests in this situation. The Boundary Waters Treaty is applicable, which states that “waters shall not be polluted on either side of the political border to the injury of health or property on the other.”
In her legislative address in 2016, Murkowski referred to the transboundary mining issue as one of her top concerns and “an example where work on the federal side and work on the state side can get a country to pay attention.” I agree with Murkowski. Therefore, I believe a first order of business is for the state of Alaska to join with our congressional delegation, tribal governments, and tens of thousands of residents in asking the U.S. federal government to secure immediate and enforceable protections and financial assurances for Alaskans who depend on the rivers of Southeast. Along with HJR 9, I also recently signed onto a letter with other Southeast legislators that urges Gov. Bill Walker to utilize the Statement of Cooperation on Protection of Transboundary Waters, which was recently signed by the state of Alaska and the province of B.C. to demand immediate cleanup and closure of the abandoned and bankrupt Tulsequah Chief mine in the Taku River watershed. This mine has been leaking toxic mining waste into the Taku watershed for 60 years, in violation of B.C. law. This will be a test case of the Statement of Cooperation and more importantly, a window into what we can expect from the B.C. and Canadian government with regard to other much larger mines across the transboundary region.
B.C. mining development near the headwaters of the Taku, Stikine and Unuk Rivers has increased in speed, scale and scope. Meanwhile, the Taku, Stikine and Unuk Rivers combined contribute over 400 jobs and $48 million in annual economic impact. We need to do more to ensure Alaska culture and jobs are not negatively impacted by Canadian mining projects near rivers shared by Alaska and B.C.
I encourage those who have interests in the fishing and tourism industries, and citizens who are concerned about threats to our way of life and who want to continue to practice recreational traditions like salmon derbies, to reach out to your state legislators, the governor’s office, and the Alaska congressional delegation. Make your voices heard, and share your ideas on the threats to our transboundary rivers. We need all hands on deck at this pivotal time.
• Rep. Dan Ortiz is an independent representing Ketchikan, Saxman, Wrangell, Hydaburg, Metlakatla, Hyder, Loring and Meyers Chuck in the Alaska State Legislature.