New B.C. Government Inherits Toxic Legacy as Tulsequah Chief Buyer Backs Away from Abandoned, Leaky Mine

The Tulsequah Chief mine, a zinc and copper mine close to the Alaska border, has been leaking acid mine drainage into the Tulsequah River since it was first shut down in 1957 and attempts to re-open the mine have failed, along with a multitude of promises to clean up the site.

Two companies have gone bankrupt during their ownership of the Tulsequah Chief, with the current owner, Chieftain Metals, declaring bankruptcy last September and there are now reports that Black Loon Metals has backed away from a potential deal to take over the site.

Black Loon chairman, Gordon Bogden, would not say whether the company remains interested in buying the Tulsequah Chief.

“As a private company we do not comment on our investment opportunities,” Bogden said in an email.

The NDP have indicated cleanup of the Tulsequah will be a priority for the new government. In early July, Jen Holmwood, caucus spokeswoman for the NDP, said cleanup of mine “is a serious issue we’ll be looking into and have to say more on in the weeks ahead.”

Green Party leader Andrew Weaver has previously stated the abandoned mine gives B.C. “an environmental black eye.”

Mine Closure, Water Treatment, Priority for Alaskans Living Downstream

Chieftain still holds a permit to build the initial phase of the mine, but receiver Grant Thornton LLP wants to sell assets and the water treatment plant — which operated only briefly because of operating costs — to help repay creditors.

Decades of pollution, running into the Tulsequah River, have infuriated Southeast Alaskans as the Tulsequah is a tributary to the salmon-rich Taku River and there are fears that the acidic drainage could affect salmon runs.

In 2015 then mines minister Bill Bennett appeared shocked by the mess when he visited the site and promised that the mine would be cleaned up, but he later backtracked, claiming the runoff poses no environmental threat.

But a study by SLR Consulting (Canada) Ltd. — which was commissioned after a risk assessment by Chieftain Metals was found to be flawed — documents details of damage to fish habitat from the acid mine drainage.

The report, released last month, looks at four zones within the river and tests showed hazards are highest in the zone closest to the discharge.

“This is likely because multiple undiluted and untreated sources of historic mine waste are discharging into the Tulsequah mainstem and side channels from surface water and groundwater inputs,” says the report.

“Metal concentrations pose unacceptable risks to fish, fish eggs and pelagic invertebrates.”

The waste includes cadmium, copper, zinc, aluminum, iron, lead, cobalt and sulphate, says the study, which recommends reducing the overland flow and doing follow-up assessments.

In some zones the contamination could be worse than documented as the study may not have captured the “worst case scenario,” according to the SLR assessment.

The new study should put an end to claims that the mine runoff is not harming fish and water quality, said Chris Zimmer, Rivers Without Borders Alaska campaign director.

“After two bankruptcies and failed attempts to sell the mine out of receivership, it is clear that the Tulsequah Chief is not a viable mine, financially, environmentally or politically,” he said.

“The only way to stop the illegal and clearly harmful acid mine drainage from the abandoned mine into the salmon-rich Taku watershed is for B.C. to honour its promises and take responsibility for mine cleanup and closure.”

Trying to reopen the mine is a recipe for another bankruptcy, more pollution and exposing the Taku watershed to mining and road building, said Zimmer, who is urging the new NDP government to take a more responsible approach to the cleanup than the former BC Liberal government.

“We urge the new Minister of Energy and Mines, Michelle Mungall, to honour the promise made by her predecessor and accept responsibility for cleaning up the mess at Tulsequah Chief,” Zimmer said.

Mungall could not be contacted in time for publication.

Image: Tulsequah Mine in 2010 by Chris Miller

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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