Alaskans Find Flaw in B.C. Study Showing Acid Drainage from Abandoned Mine Does Not Affect Fish

Acid mine drainage from the Tulsequah Chief mine in northwest B.C. has worried and infuriated Southeast Alaskans for almost six decades and concerns have again peaked with a new analysis that claims a study of runoff — that found the drainage would not affect fish — was flawed.

The mine, situated beside the Tulsequah River, the largest tributary to the Taku, one of Alaska’s premium salmon rivers, was closed by Cominco in 1957 without reclamation or clean-up of acid mine drainage.

The mine was bought by Redfern Corp. but numerous government warnings and reclamation orders were ignored and Redfern filed for bankruptcy in 2009. The mine was then bought in 2010 by Toronto-based Chieftain Metals Inc., which accepted environmental liabilities as part of the purchase price.

Hopes that the drainage problems would be addressed were short-lived and an interim water treatment plant that operated for only six months was closed in June 2012 because of costs and technical issues.

The only consolation for those worried about the effect of toxic runoff on salmon, was a study, ordered by the province and conducted for Chieftain in 2013, that concluded that, although significant levels of copper and zinc were found downstream from the mine, the drainage posed a low risk to fish in the Tulsequah River and that the discharge did not affect the Taku River as Tulsequah water was diluted by a factor of six when mixed with Taku waters.

“Chieftain Metals is of the opinion that the extent of aquatic environmental risk is very low for the majority of the year and low to moderate during the winter and spring thaw,” Chieftain Metals CEO Victor Wyprysky wrote in a 2013 letter to the provincial Ministry of Environment.

However, that study is now being questioned by a new analysis, conducted for Rivers Without Borders, that has found problems with the way information was collected.

“Consequently, the conclusion of low risk to aquatic life from Tulsequah Chief mine acid mine drainage is unreliable,” says the report by fisheries biologist Sarah O’Neal.

Chris Zimmer of Rivers Without Borders, one of the many Alaskan organizations, tribes and politicians that have been watching the recent proliferation of B.C. mines close to the Alaskan border with trepidation, said the Chieftain study is fundamentally flawed and cannot be used to delay clean-up of the polluting mine any longer.

In a question-and-answer interview with the Juneau Empire, Bennett said: “I said I’m going to try to fix it, so I’m going to try to fix it. It’s a horribly difficult and complex issue for B.C., because the scientists on both sides of the border say there isn’t any environmental harm from what’s going into the Tulsequah River. We have limited resources.”

DeSmog Canada received no response to numerous phone calls and emails to both the B.C. Ministry of Energy and Mines and Chieftain Metals.

In November, B.C. and Alaska signed a memorandum of understanding to strengthen cross-border consultation on major mine developments and to develop a joint water monitoring program for transboundary waters.

The Tulsequah Chief should be one of the first issues addressed and, as it seems unlikely that Chieftain has the wherewithal or financial resources to clear up the problem, it is up to B.C. and the Canadian federal government to step in, especially as questions are again being raised about damage from the runoff, Zimmer said.

“It’s time to seal up this festering sore. If Chieftain can’t do it, then B.C. needs to step up. Alaskans concerned about B.C. mining across the transboundary region see the Tulsequah Chief as a test case of how B.C. will deal with other mines,” Zimmer said.

“So far, B.C. is failing the test and Alaskans have real reason for worry. If B.C. can’t deal with this relatively small mine, how will it deal with massive mines like KSM?”

“Chieftain and B.C. have both a legal and moral responsibility to clean this up,” Zimmer said, pointing to Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett who, while he was visiting Alaska last year, initially pledged to clean up the mess and then backtracked, pointing to the Chieftain study.

The KSM mine, about 35 kilometres from the Alaska border, which will tap into one of the largest gold and copper deposits in the world, is one of about 10 mines close to the Alaska/B.C. transboundary region in various stages of applications, planning and development.

This week a delegation of tribal leaders, commercial fishing groups and conservation organizations from Alaska was in Ottawa looking for help from federal politicians in giving Alaska a bigger say in mine development in shared waters.

The group, who will also meet with Bruce Heyman, U.S. ambassador to Canada, wants the issue referred to the International Joint Commission, which was created under the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty, to deal with disputes in shared waters.

“We wanted to get our request in the radar before Prime Minister Trudeau and President Obama meet here in Ottawa later this month as part of the North American summit,” Heather Hardcastle, from Salmon Beyond Borders, told DeSmog Canada.

Currently Alaska, as the downstream neighbour, takes all the risks associated with mines in B.C., she said.

“It is increasingly clear that it will take our two countries working together to decide how to manage our globally significant share of this iconic region,” Hardcastle added.

Years of trying to get the B.C. government to address concerns have produced nothing but nice words and vague promises, said Frederick Otilius Olsen Jr., chairman of the United Tribal Transboundary Mining Work Group, representing 15 Southeast Alaska Tribes.

“We seem to be getting nowhere,” Olsen, a member of the delegation to Ottawa, said.

“Facts, reports and studies keep emerging — the latest from B.C.’s Auditor General — that indicate the situation is even worse than we feared. We need federal help and an international solution to this international problem.”

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