Early last month, when the tailings dam at the Mount Polley Mine in British Columbia breached releasing 10 million cubic meters of contaminated water into Polley Lake and Quesnel Lake, southeast Alaskans woke up to the possibility that other BC mines could pose the same threats to southeast Alaskan fisheries.
Tailings dams are built to hold the waste rock that is extracted from ore during mining. These toxic tailings are often stored under-water and the dams are built to keep the waste from spreading to the surrounding environment. Because the waste rock can be so harmful, tailings dams need to be maintained forever.
The tailings dam at Mount Polley Mine was only 14 years old.
As more new mines are built along the BC and Alaska border, Alaskans now know the risks mining accidents pose to the people and ecosystems sitting downstream. And they can do nothing to protect themselves.
The Transboundary Mine Issue
Mining has been a part of the British Columbia economy for more than 9,000 years, since First Nation peoples first started trading obsidian. When Europeans arrived in the 19th century, mining took on a more prominent role and there are no signs of activities slowing down.
BC premier Christy Clark promised to bring eight mines in four years to the province when she was elected in 2011. With the recent completion of the Northwest Transmission power line up the western border of BC, it looks like she can make good on her promise.
The first mine to make use of the new power line is the Red Chris Project, which is set to begin operations by the end of the year. The Red Chris Project tailings dam is located near the Iskut River which is one of the main tributaries of the Stikine River – the largest river by volume in the Tongass National Forest and one of the largest producers of salmon.
The tailings dam at Red Chris is set to be 330 feet high and needs to hold 183 million tons of toxic tailings. The mine will process 30,000 tons of ore per day for 28 years, according to owners, Imperial Metals Corporation. The Imperial Metals Corporation is the same mining company that built the Mount Polley Mine.
All of the proposed mines will process tens of thousands of tons of ore per day with the largest mine, Kerr Sulphuretts Mitchell (KSM), set to process 120,000 tons of ore per day for 52 years. Most of the proposed mines will be in operation for less than 25 years.
And, the Red Chris isn't the only mine threatening southeast Alaskan watersheds. The major salmon-producing watersheds in danger from the new mines are the Stikine, Unuk and the Taku. Commercial and sport fishing are a $1 billion industry in southeast Alaska and salmon is also important for tourism and subsistence in the Tongass. Should a tailings dam breach or another mining accident occur, these watersheds and southeast Alaskans that depend on them will bear the brunt of the risk.
Alaskan senators, fishermen, conservationists and natives alike recognize the risks these new transboundary mines pose for southeast Alaska and the livelihood of the Tongass National Forest. But, because Canada is the sovereign country, southeast Alaskans have no way to protect themselves from the dangers upstream.
The Boundary Waters Treaty places responsibility for any pollution in Alaskan waters from the mines on Canada, but little is required for pre-emptive action to prevent the pollution from ever occurring.
And it's not just a major catastrophe like what happened at Mount Polley that Alaskans should worry about. Dust from the mines could smother salmon eggs. Leaking chemicals could kill salmon foods sources. Increased copper in the water is believed to impair fish hearing and make them less able to avoid predators. All of these side effects affect the survivability of the salmon before a major accident happens.
Preserving the last frontier
The Tongass National Forest is the largest in tact temperate rainforest in the world. The forest is home to about 70,000 people that all depend on the healthy and sustainable fisheries found here. Salmon is a part of the Alaskan way of life. From commercial and sport fishing to subsistence, the five species of Pacific salmon are a lifeline for the culture and people.
As the FDA continues to test the limits of genetically modifying fish and more and more farmed fish make it on to American plates, we should be fighting harder to protect what wild and sustainable fisheries this country has left. Fish that can grow bigger and fatter faster pose unforeseen threats to American health and only fulfill the wasteful desires to always have excess. Fresh, wild fish should not be the delicacy, but the norm.
And finally… Alaska is America's last frontier. We are a nation of explorers, of entrepreneurs and innovation. Part of that identity comes from the wilderness within our borders, the adventure that can be had in our own backyard. But that wilderness is quickly disappearing and these mines might destroy the little that Alaska has left. America needs wildness and should fight hard to protect it.