Water quality in a tributary of one of Southeast Alaska’s prime salmon rivers will improve once a new mine opens on the B.C. side of the border according to spokesmen for Seabridge Gold Inc, the Toronto-based company planning to open the Kerr-Sulpherets-Mitchell (KSM) mine.
The copper, gold and molybdenum mine, 65 kilometres northwest of Stewart and 30 kilometres from the Alaska border, received federal and provincial environmental assessment approvals last year and the company is now seeking a joint venture partner for the $5.4-billion project.
But the prospect of a massive mine close to a tributary that runs into the Unuk River has alarmed Alaskan fishing, First Nations and environmental groups who say the risk is unacceptable and are pushing for transboundary mining issues to be referred to the International Joint Commission.
“The long term risks of KSM far outweigh any short-term improvements to water quality the mine may create,” Chris Zimmer, Rivers Without Borders Alaska campaign director, said.
The KSM tailings pond, with a massive 239-metre tailings dam, will be built in the Bell Irving/Nass watershed in B.C., but the mine operation will be close to Sulpherets Creek which runs into the Unuk River.
“The open pits and waste rock piles are located in (the Unuk) watershed,” Heather Hardcastle of Salmon Beyond Borders said.
“They’re essentially using the Unuk, all the way up to the border as a mixing zone.”
However, Brent Murphy, Seabridge Gold vice president environmental affairs, in an interview with DeSmog Canada, said water quality in the creek is already bad because of natural erosion of copper, iron and zinc deposits.
“The acidity will basically eat your boots off,” he said.
Federal and provincial regulators agree there will not be any impact in Alaska from the mine, Murphy said.
“The operation of the KSM water management system will, in fact, improve the overall water quality,” he said, pointing to company photos of discoloured creek water.
“We will treat the water that comes into contact with the mine site and improve the water running into Sulphurets Creek and ultimately the Unuk River,” Murphy said.
But Alaskan groups say the photos are misleading and point to a 2014 report by Skeena Wild Conservation Trust that concluded KSM would release metals into the Unuk watershed that would exceed levels known to have serious impacts on salmon.
“I am especially concerned when people make statements to the effect that they can improve natural systems. Seems the height of hubris,” said Guy Archibald, Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, Inside Passage waterkeeper coordinator.
“There is more complexity in a mud puddle than science will ever understand and a massive intervention such as the KSM mine will no doubt have massive unforeseen negative consequences.”
Following the 2014 collapse of the Mount Polley tailings pond dam there has been increased concern about earthen tailings dams and the expert panel looking into the disaster recommended that mining companies should adopt best available technologies and consider dry stacking tailings when possible.
However, Peter Williams, Seabridge vice-president of technical services said location is the paramount concern when choosing how to dispose of tailings and, after considering dry stacking, it was decided the KSM site was ideal for wet tailings, with a lined tailings pond to ensure no discharge into the environment.
“We have put it into a valley and most of the walls are valley walls, so they are very strong,” he said.
“It makes this location very safe.”
The u-shaped valley will have gently-sloping dams at either end, constructed of sand from the tailings, Murphy said.
That is very different from the Mount Polley dam which consisted of a steeply-sloping ring dyke constructed of locally-sourced till material, he said.
“Most importantly, after treatment, water from the proposed KSM facility will be discharged on an annual basis, preventing the build-up of any water within the facility as occurred at Mount Polley where there was no treatment of water for discharge,” he said.
Zimmer, who emphasized that Alaskan groups are concerned about the effect of the mine on any rivers, whether Canadian or Alaskan, said one of the major worries is what happens over time.
“What happens after 250 years? What if the water treatment fails or doesn’t work as proposed — Seabridge has no contingency plans for this,” he said.
Williams said there should be no concerns after closure as, after the tailings are topped and revegetated, there will be minimal water flow.
During the six-and-a-half-year review process, Seabridge held numerous meetings with Alaskan groups and regulators, including a public meeting in Ketchikan, Murphy said.
There was also a detailed assessment by independent federal regulators so there was no need for a panel review — as requested by Alaskans — because it would duplicate work already done, Murphy said.
Neither would a referral to the International Joint Commission be the correct process, Murphy believes.
“In our opinion [the IJC] is a political dispute resolution process and we are continuing to support efforts of the B.C. and Alaska governments who are working on increasing cooperation between the two governments on transboundary projects and we encourage them to work towards a memorandum of understanding,” he said.
But Zimmer said most of the meetings were open only to agency and company officials and many questions remain — such as lack of funds to deal with major accidents or proof that Seabridge can treat water for selenium.
“The arrogance demonstrated by Seabridge’s blind faith in their engineering in the face of the forces of Mother Nature and time, is the same arrogance that resulted in the Titanic, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Mount Polley,” he said.