MAC: Mines and Communities

Canada: Alaska group raises international concerns over B.C. mine operations

Published by MAC on 2016-06-19
Source: The Canadian Press, Times Colonist

Alaska group raises international concerns in Ottawa over B.C. mine operations

Bruce Cheadle

The Canadian Press

16 June 2016

Frederick Otilius Olsen, an indigenous tribal vice-president from Kassan, Alaska, says the catastrophic failure of the Mount Polley mine tailings dam in 2014 was a "huge wake up call" that galvanized concerns over what he sees as British Columbia's lax mining regulations.

OTTAWA - A delegation from Alaska says it is time to enforce the century-old Boundary Waters Treaty between Canada and the United States when it comes to northern British Columbia mining activity.

The group is in Ottawa this week seeking to enlist federal help in stopping B.C. copper and gold mines from polluting the headwaters of key salmon rivers that flow from Canada into Alaska.

They're also pushing the U.S. State Department to refer the matter to the International Joint Commission, which was created under the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty to help resolve disputes along internationally shared waters.

Frederick Otilius Olsen, an indigenous tribal vice-president from Kasaan, Alaska, says the catastrophic failure of the Mount Polley mine tailings dam in 2014 was a "huge wake-up call" that galvanized concerns over what he sees as British Columbia's lax mining regulations.

Olsen heads an organization of 15 federally recognized tribes in southeast Alaska who have banded together to demand a say in resource decisions that affect their lives, and to reach out to B.C. First Nations in the common cause of saving the environment.

The Alaska group is meeting members of Parliament in Ottawa and has a sit-down on Friday with Bruce Heyman, the U.S. ambassador to Canada, but won't meet Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — who just happened to be in Burnaby on Thursday meeting with B.C. Premier Christy Clark.

The group has arranged a meeting with officials at Global Affairs Canada and with Vancouver MP Pam Goldsmith-Jones, the minister's parliamentary secretary.

Heather Hardcastle of Juneau-based group Salmon Beyond Borders says the group is "still incredulous" that B.C. has permitted another, larger open pit copper and gold mine to be opened by Imperial Metals, the same company that owns the Mount Polley mine, using much the same technology.

Bill Bennett, the B.C. minister for energy and mines, said in an emailed statement Thursday that he appreciates Alaska's concerns "given the scope and scale of the Mount Polley incident."

"We want to be good neighbours and we understand and share the concerns raised by Alaskans," said Bennett.

But Bennett said the International Joint Commission only needs to be called in if the province and state "cannot work through these types of issues themselves."

And he pointed to last November's memorandum of understanding signed by the B.C. premier and Alaska Gov. Bill Walker that "formalizes our mutual commitment to protect and enhance our shared environment, including transboundary rivers, watersheds and fisheries."

A spokesman for Global Affairs Canada noted the federal government has committed to review the current environmental review process. John Babcock said in an email that Alaska and the U.S. government have been involved in B.C. project assessments "for some time" and that involving the joint commission now would be premature.

"We are encouraged by the MOU between B.C. and Alaska on environmental co-operation and would like to see how this progresses in addressing concerns in the region before looking at other options," wrote Babcock.

Last month, British Columbia's auditor general issued a damning "Audit of Compliance and Enforcement in the Mining Sector" that found "almost all of the expectations for a robust compliance and enforcement program were not met."

Hardcastle said there are at least 10 metals mines on the drawing board in B.C. that could impact three key, transboundary salmon rivers: the Taku, Stikine and Unuk. United States federal non-development designations protect the American sides of these rivers due to their economic and cultural importance.

"We're not opposed outright to mines," said Hardcastle, whose family runs Taku River Reds, which sells salmon across the U.S.

"What we're advocating for, at the very least, is a seat at the table for the U.S. and for tribal and indigenous governments, with Canada, to decide what we want these shared rivers to look like generations from now."

The group visited officials in Washington right after Trudeau's state visit in March, and said they found some "very passionate folks" at federal agencies with a sympathetic ear.

Jill Weitz, the campaign manager, said officials told her that proposed language on the "Alaska-British Columbia transboundary region" was kept out of the joint statement on Arctic Leadership, Energy and Climate Change signed by President Barack Obama and Trudeau.

The group was told they needed to get to Ottawa directly, and now they have been given a meeting with the U.S. ambassador that they'd been seeking for the past two years.

"We want to bring the message to (Heyman) that this is an international problem, it demands an international solution," said Weitz.

— Follow @BCheadle on Twitter

Alaska Natives, environmentalists add to push for action on nearby Canadian mining

Erica Martinson

27 June 2016

WASHINGTON — Alaska Native and environmental groups on Monday petitioned the Interior Secretary to launch a formal investigation into whether pollution from mines in British Columbia is causing problems for wildlife across the border in Southeast Alaska.

The groups pointed to a 1971 amendment and several international agreements to argue that Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has a duty to launch an investigation into the potential Alaska environmental impacts from six hard-rock mines in British Columbia. And they want the agency to support a joint United States-Canada commission to hash out the issue.

Earthjustice attorney Kenta Tsuda charged the U.S. government with "waiting on the sidelines" as Canadian mine companies barrelled ahead, and Frederick Olsen Jr., chairman of the United Tribal Transboundary Mining Work Group, called the state of affairs "federal under-reach."

This isn't the first time the Interior Department and the Obama administration have heard from Alaskans concerned that pollution from the mines could devastate Southeast Alaska fisheries: The state's U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Congressman Don Young, as well as officials in Gov. Bill Walker's administration, have all raised the issue with officials from Jewell to Secretary of State John Kerry to White House staff.

But the delegation said pleas for White House officials to raise the issue in recent talks with Canada have gone unheard.

Now, Native organizations, Earthjustice and local environmental groups say a 1971 law focused on protecting threatened and endangered species, along with two international conservation agreements, should prompt action from the Obama administration to protect woodland caribou, grizzly bears and salmon.

A spokeswoman for Interior Secretary Sally Jewell didn't have anything to say about the issue, other than confirming that the Interior Department is "aware of the petition and aware of the situation they're raising."

The delegation, in a May letter to Kerry, suggested the Obama administration should first decide whether a commission would be the best route to manage the issue. But they did ask the administration to encourage officials in British Columbia to consider cumulative downstream impacts from multiple mining projects, and suggested various Alaska officials be given a more formal stake in the review process.

The lawmakers also asked for the administration to support federal funding for collecting baseline water quality data in the region, "so that the U.S. can file for damages in the event of mining-related damage from Canadian mines."

The latest concerns detailed by the environmental and Native groups Monday say more than a million new trips down the Cassiar-Stewart Highway could result in more woodland caribou and grizzly bear deaths, and threaten the watersheds in the Taku, Stikine and Unuk river basins

"These concerns are not unfounded, because there is already a history of Canadian acid mine waste affecting Southeast Alaska," the lawmakers wrote in their May letter to Kerry. "The Tulsequah Chief Mine, which is up the Taku River and southeast of Juneau, has been leaking acidic waste into the Taku River for decades."

The delegation pointed to a concerned report from the auditor general of British Columbia, who wrote that when it came to environmental protection, there were major, widespread planning and compliance gaps in the mining industry there.

Anti-mine advocates say the watersheds generate millions of dollars in salmon, sport fishing and tourism spending.

At issue are six mines, either operational or in planning stages to unearth gold, silver, copper, lead, zinc and molybdenum. The Red Chris Porphyry Copper-Gold Mine began producing in early 2015. Permits are in line for the Tulsequah Chief Mine. The Schaft Creek Mine, the Galore Creek Mine, the KSM Mine and the Brucejack Mine are still in earlier development phases.


Calvin Sandborn: In making mines safe, B.C. deserves an F
Calvin Sandborn

Times Colonist

29 May 2016

The muddy torrent that ripped down the Mount Polley dam and turned gentle Hazeltine Creek into a toxic canyon did something else. It swept away a decade of empty government boasts about environmental stewardship.

The recent auditor-general report on compliance and enforcement of the mining sector pulls no punches:

The ministry is deficient in carrying out most of the expected regulatory activities. On several occasions in the past 10 years, ministry staff told higher-level management that inadequate monitoring and inspection, due to insufficient staffing levels, was putting the province at risk.

And risk became reality at Mount Polley. Auditor general Carol Bellringer was particularly damning on government’s regulation of Mount Polley, stating: “We noted the same issues in the Mount Polley file as we did throughout the audit — that is, too few resources, infrequent inspections and lack of enforcement.”

Perhaps most important, the auditor general team concluded that at Mount Polley:

• Government failed to conduct the required geotechnical inspections of the dam every year, and

• If inspections had been done, inspectors could well have identified problems and avoided the disaster.

The auditor general’s highest priority recommendation was that the Ministry of Energy and Mines needs to get out of the enforcement business — government should create a truly independent enforcement agency to enforce the law vigorously.

Bellringer noted that the ministry can’t do this because of the inherent conflict in its dual role of promoting and regulating industry. Bellringer specifically noted that the ministry is “at risk of regulatory capture,” of serving industry interests instead of the public interest.

One key example of industry interests trumping the public interest is the government’s failure to make companies post enough security to pay for future mine cleanups. This leaves taxpayers at risk to pay the cleanup bill (like the $700-million bill that Yukon taxpayers are paying at the Faro Mine).

Alaska and Quebec handle this better. They require companies to put up security for 100 per cent of potential cleanup costs. They believe that companies — not taxpayers — should clean up their own mess.

As a result, the Teck Resources mine in northern Alaska is fully bonded for $560 million in reclamation costs — and Alaska taxpayers are protected. But British Columbia doesn’t require the same company to protect B.C. taxpayers. Across the province, Teck mines have unsecured reclamation costs of more than $700 million.

This policy flaw could cost you dearly. The auditor general has warned that the growing unfunded taxpayer liability for mine cleanups across B.C. exceeds $1.2 billion.

Where to go from here?

The ramshackle regulatory system the government has long touted as “world-leading” is clearly a dysfunctional mess. It cannot be relied upon to safeguard our lakes and rivers from an industry that can permanently poison entire watersheds.

Fortunately, both the auditor general and the government’s expert panel on Mount Polley warn that “business as usual cannot continue,” and have called for dramatic reform. Faced with mounting evidence of overwhelming government neglect and bumbling, the politicians are making the right noises about implementing change.

But there is a real question about whether government will take the steps necessary.

After all, the auditor general warned in 2003 about the serious risk of unfunded mining liability — and the government responded by quadrupling the financial risk to taxpayers over the past decade.

It is particularly troubling that the government has refused to embrace the central recommendations of both the auditor general and the expert engineering panel:

• The government rejected the most important auditor-general recommendation — to move enforcement out of the mines ministry to a truly independent enforcement agency.

• It has not committed to the expert panel’s most significant recommendation — that the province systematically transition from building large tailings ponds to the safer technology of “dry stack” tailings. Despite the panel’s warning that two tailings dams will likely fail every decade, the minister has finessed commitment to this recommendation, and shuffled it off for extended review.

Nevertheless, our broken regulatory system can be fixed, and two expert bodies have pointed out how. Now, politicians just need to implement the recommendations made. If we do it right, we will some day be able truly to boast that we have the most sustainable mining in the world.

Calvin Sandborn is legal director of the University of Victoria Environmental Law Centre.


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