Alaskan Hopes Pinned on New B.C. Government as Sale Looms for Polluting Mine

Generations of John Morris Sr.’s family have fished the Taku River in Southeast Alaska and for decades they have watched acid mine drainage from the abandoned Tulsequah Chief mine in B.C. flow into a tributary of the Taku.

Now, with a new NDP government, running on support from the Green Party and a shared promise of reconciliation with First Nations and a commitment to the principles of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Morris is hoping there will finally be some action on the Tulsequah Chief clean-up.

Indigenous and conservation groups in Alaska, who are ready to put pressure on B.C.’s new government, are pointing to a previous statement in the Legislature by Green Leader Andrew Weaver who said the Tulsequah Chief gives B.C. “an environmental black eye.”

“We have worked on this for so many years now, one day it’s going to fall on the right ears,” said Morris, spokesman for the Douglas Indian Association.

The area around the salmon-rich Taku River is sacred to Southeast Alaskan tribes and cleaning up the mess around the Tulsequah Chief is vitally important, especially given growing unease as larger mines open on the B.C. side of the border, according to Morris.

There are 10 advanced mining projects in the northwest corner of British Columbia.

“Hopefully something can be done. As soon as the right people are in the right places (in the new government) there will be some ears we can bend,” he said.

Premier designate John Horgan is expected to announce his new cabinet later this month. In a brief statement emailed to The Province, Jen Holmwood, caucus spokeswoman for the NDP, said cleanup of Tulsequah Chief “is a serious issue we’ll be looking into and have to say more on in the weeks ahead.”

Hopes ran high the mine would be cleaned up after former Liberal energy and mines minister Bill Bennett visited the mine site in 2015 and promised to remedy the situation. However, after leaving Alaska, where he had appeared shocked at the extent of the pollution, Bennett started backtracking and claimed there was no environmental threat.

The small zinc and copper mine has polluted the surrounding area since it was initially shut down in 1957 and a litany of clean-up promises were broken as the mine passed through a series of owners, including two companies that went bankrupt.

In September 2016 Chieftain Metals Corp., the latest owner of the mine, went into receivership, but the receiver, Grant Thornton Ltd., has posted documents on its website showing an unnamed company is interested in buying Chieftain’s stock.

However, groups in Alaska want the mine closed, not sold, especially as, by buying stock rather than the assets, the new company would be able to use Chieftain’s existing permits and would not have to consult with the Taku River Tlingit First Nation.

The Grant Thornton documents say many government permits and licences necessary for the operation “have consent rights” as a condition.

“The purchase and sale of the shares of (Chieftain) may obviate the need for any such assignments and consents,” according to the documents.

Morris is adamant that the Tulsequah Chief is not a viable mine and it’s time to clean it up and close it down for once and for all.

“Two mining companies have gone bankrupt trying to re-open this mine and have left a legacy of toxic acid mine drainage into salmon habitat. B.C.’s assurances of mine clean-up seem hollow with B.C. more interested in re-opening this failed mine, rather than cleaning up its 60-year legacy of pollution,” he said.

Chris Zimmer, Rivers Without Borders Alaska campaign director, said the new government needs to take a new look at Tulsequah and repair some of the damage to Alaska/B.C. relations done by previous governments.

“This is a (Christy) Clark/Bennett leftover that the new incoming B.C. government should end,” Zimmer said.

“Trying to re-open the Tulsequah Chief a third time is not a clean-up plan. It is a recipe for another bankruptcy, more pollution and opening up the heart of the Taku to mining and road building,” he said.

Lack of consultation about a new buyer for the mine, despite the signing last year of a Statement of Cooperation between Alaska and B.C., is bringing rumblings of discontent and renewed calls for the two federal governments to become involved in transboundary mining problems.

“If B.C. can’t solve the pollution problem at the relatively small Tulsequah Chief, what can we expect at much larger mines, such as Red Chris and KSM, especially without federal involvement under the Boundary Waters treaty,” asked Frederick Olsen Jr., United Tribal Trans-boundary Mining Work Group chair.

The cooperation agreement is similar to relying on the Neighbourhood Watch program, when police are needed, he said.

The Mount Polley disaster weighs heavily on many Southeast Alaskans who wonder what would happen if there was a similar tailings dam breach on the border, with poison reaching one of the major salmon-bearing rivers.

“It wouldn’t just be the salmon, it would be the whole ecosystem — the bears and wolves and every other creature that depends on this,” Morris said.

“We’re all for economic development, but let’s do it safe.”

Image: Taku River. Photo: Chris Miller via Salmon Beyond Borders

Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist based in Victoria, British Columbia. Lavoie covered environment and First Nations stories for the…

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