Southeast Alaska lawmakers are joining tribal and municipal governments, calling on the federal government to stop – at least temporarily – British Columbia’s mining activities in transboundary watersheds.
Southeast Alaska’s major river systems – the Taku, Unuk and Stikine – originate in British Columbia. Those transboundary watersheds are peppered with mineral claims, active mines and shuttered former mining operations.
How the mines are regulated and cleaned up has long been a point of concern and tension across the international border. Recent studies have shown wide-ranging impacts from mines hundreds of miles downstream.
At a press conference March 8, Ketchikan independent Rep. Dan Ortiz explained one mine cleanup in particular has been in question since he was a freshman legislator – the Tulsequah Chief mine on the Taku.
“They said they were gonna get right on it. And that was over eight years ago,” Ortiz stated.
After meeting with two British Columbia government officials – Acting Deputy Minister Laurel Nash from the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Andrew Rollo, Acting Assistant Deputy Minister of Mines Health, Safety and Enforcement – Alaska legislators announced they were calling on the U.S. to intervene.
Their letter, addressed to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and signed by several Southeast Alaska lawmakers including state Representatives Dan Ortiz (NP-Ketchikan), Rebecca Himschoot (NP-Sitka), Sara Hannan (D-Juneau), Andi Story (D-Juneau), Louise Stutes (R-Kodiak) and Senator Jesse Kiehl (D-Juneau), calls for an immediate and temporary pause on mine permitting and exploration in B.C. until there’s a binding international agreement in place.
Ortiz said he and fellow lawmakers stand with the regional tribal government The Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, environmental group Salmon Beyond Borders and dozens of municipal and tribal governments throughout the region in calling for greater protections for transboundary watersheds.
“It’s really simple,” Ortiz said. “We’ve heard loud and clear from constituents that Alaskans need enforceable protections. Over a hundred Alaskan tribes, municipalities, commercial and sport-fishing businesses and organizations, and thousands of Alaskans have written letters and passed resolutions asking for the Boundary Waters Treaty to be invoked. We want to join with these thousands of voices in calling for that action.”
The called-for action would come through the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty between the U.S. and Canada. If the federal government heeds the call, it could refer the issue to the International Joint Commission, the governing body for that treaty. The IJC could then bring together Southeast tribes, First Nations, provincial, state and federal governments to work on the shared watershed issues.
“It’s time that we actually see some progress being made in terms of putting forward some real protections out there, so that our way of life can continue to exist long into the future for our children, for our grandchildren,” Ortiz said.
There’s already a Memorandum of Understanding between the state of Alaska and the provincial government of British Columbia to work together to monitor and protect transboundary watersheds, but it’s proved unhelpful in including downstream communities and tribes in the mine permitting process.
Breanna Walker, director of Salmon Beyond Borders, explained how this new request would supplement existing agreements: “What’s needed in addition to that MOU state-to-province process is a parallel federal-to-federal process that ensures tribes and First Nations are at the table and in the lead, that municipalities and lawmakers downstream have a say, and that everyone is coming together and that there is some accountability in place.”
Alaska’s legislature doesn’t have legal authority to permit or decline mining actions, but Juneau Democrat Rep. Sara Hannan said that’s why she signed on to the letter calling for federal cooperation with tribal governments and Canada’s government.
“All we can do is lift up and affirm that we support that effort, that the Indigenous people of this place have a legal right and standing to be heard and consulted in the process,” Hannan said. “We as [state] legislators can jump up and down, but we don’t have standing to make those decisions.”
Plus, Hannan added, there needs to be better communication with Alaskans. While she’s been told state officials with the Department of Environmental Conservation are meeting regularly with B.C. officials, “they’ve not invited our tribes to the table, they’ve not included us in the dialogues, they’ve not shared the minutes of their meetings publicly. So although they contend they have very regular working group meetings, making progress, that progress in isolation from the fishermen, and the communities that are the most active and concerned.”
The legislators’ call echoes resolutions passed by Southeast communities and tribal governments in recent years.
Tlingit & Haida President Chalyee Éesh Richard Peterson emphasized the importance of the salmon and hooligan runs in Southeast’s rivers. The regional tribe has passed a similar resolution, calling for a pause to mine permitting and a ban on earthen tailings dams, as well as a binding international agreement to include First Nations and Indigenous voices as well as municipal governments in Southeast.
“Our shared transboundary rivers have nourished our Indigenous peoples here since time immemorial, and it is our responsibility to ensure these rivers can provide for generations to come,” Peterson said. “Our wild salmon and hooligan populations are struggling. We must do everything we can to protect these resources that are the fabric of our culture. The conservation of these resources is an expression of our inherent sovereignty.”
Peterson said when he’s gone to meet with consulates or Canadian government representatives, it’s been frustrating because Canadian officials aren’t obligated to act on Central Council’s requests since part of the tribe is based in the States.
“Central Council of Tlingit and Haida is divided by this border,” he explained. “We have Tlingit in the interior, in the Yukon; we have Taku River Tlingits. We have Haida in Haida Gwaii in B.C. We are a nation divided by somebody else’s lines. And we should have a voice. We should be the ones being consulted and considered when we talk about the impacts of mines.”
Peterson and other Central Council members also met with B.C. ministry officials, and he related that during that meeting, Tlingit & Haida committed to quarterly meetings with the province. He stated he also challenged the ministers to utilize years-worth of water quality data collected by samplers for the tribe, along with the province’s own monitoring projects.
“Central Council has been gathering data on water quality in these rivers for years,” Peterson explained. “It’s valid, scientifically taken, it’s defensible. And they made a commitment today [March 8] to take it and use it, and so we want to see them do that. This has been a federally-funded project that we’ve been doing; Senator Murkowski has secured those fundings for Central Council for years. We do a very thorough and good job. So that data exists. We don’t need anybody else to be doing it separately. We’re already doing it.”
He said the Southeast way of life and healthy communities are dependent on fisheries, both from a traditional cultural and social standpoint to an economic standpoint.
“This should be simple,” he said. “Whatever your political leanings, whether you’re pro-industry or against industry, you should want clean water, you should want systems that support healthy habitat, healthy and strong returns of salmon, that will rear and spawn for generations to come. That’s the bottom line.”
Asked for comment, B.C. Ministry spokesperson Peter Lonergan wrote in a statement that the province is “committed to working collaboratively with both state and federal US agencies to manage
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