The Keystone XL controversy may currently be consuming most of the U.S. government's attention, but it's not the only environmental crisis-in-the-making coming our way via Canada. A pro-development push north of the border is paving the way for large-scale mining projects located at key watersheds. Downstream in Alaska, commercial fishermen, conservation groups and others who fear for the mines' potential to damage their homes and livelihoods can do nothing but watch.
Emblematic among these perceived threats is the KSM (Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell) mine, a British Columbia project in the transboundary Unuk River watershed. Alaska, the United State's last major remaining source of wild-caught salmon, boasts five species of salmon; all can be found in the Unuk, which boasts one of the region's largest runs of king, or chinook, salmon. On the U.S. side of the border, the Unuk flows into the Misty Fjords National Monument, a federal wilderness area.
KSM is somewhat uniquely imposing: if built, it would become one the world's largest open-pit mines, capable of producing billions of pounds of copper and millions of pounds of silver, gold and molybdenum. It will be located less than 20 miles upstream from the U.S. border. In both size and controversy, KSM rivals Pebble Mine, the proposed open-pit copper mine currently the topic of fierce debate in Alaska. The difference here is that the ultimate decision whether or not to build the mine is largely out of Alaskans' hands.
“The really scary part is that we don’t currently have a say right now, at all, in how these mines are developed,” Heather Hardcastle, a gillnetter who harvests salmon on Alaska’s Taku River and is now involved with conservation group Trout Unlimited's transboundary river campaign, told Salon. Alaskans can participate in Canada's public comment periods, she said, “but the Canadian government essentially doesn’t have to listen to us, or take our concerns into account.”
Those who've been following Canada's recent push for natural resources exploitation or its less-than-commendable environmental record weren't quite reassured to hear that government regulators gave the KSM mine their environmental stamp of approval, nor were they quick to believe the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency's (CEAA) finding that the project "is not likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects."
But those misgivings spiraled into a something more akin to panic this past August, when a disaster at Canada's Mt. Polley mine demonstrated for everyone just how much damage a government-approved, not-likely-to-be-harmful mine is capable of producing should something go wrong. A "massive failure" of the mine's tailing pond resulting in the dumping an estimated 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater and 150 million cubic feet of mining waste into the surrounding river systems, posing a threat to drinking water and local salmon runs. It's thought to be "one of the largest environmental disasters in mining history."
And yet, "If you asked me two weeks ago if this could have happened," Brian Kynoch, the president of the company that ran the mine, said in apology, "I would have said it couldn't."
It received little attention in the lower 48 states, but the disaster made headlines up north. Hardcastle told Salon that after that, many assumed the Canadian government might slow things down and reassess. Instead, she said, “projects are entering the environmental approval process as if nothing happened.” Environment Minister Mary Polak, meanwhile, told the Globe and Mail that cutbacks to enforcement and inspections definitely didn't have anything to do with the disaster, meaning she's probably not going to support a push for greater accountability once even more mines are built.
KSM is terrifying based on its size alone, but add it to the number of other large, open-pit mines being fast-tracked toward approval, and the risks multiply. In 2011, Premiere Christy Clark, who trumpets mining as the province’s “comeback industry,” pledged to build eight new mines and expand nine others: right now, five projects in total are pending along the Taku , Stikine and Unuk watersheds, all of which are incredibly important, and delicate, salmon habitats. The same company behind the Mt. Polley disaster, Imperial Metals, has anther major project pending at a main tributary to the Stikine River watershed, “one of the largest salmon producers in the Tongass National Forest.” After Imperial Metals said it had no plans to slow down production in light of what happened at Mt. Polley, indigenous Canadians blockaded the mine in protest.
“It feels like this big freight train that just continues to come" Hardcastle told Salon, "and we’re doing our darndest to defend our rivers and way of life…we're trying to scramble to keep up.”
Native American groups are organizing in opposition to Canada's mines as well. “We’re people of the land and the water," Jennifer Hanlon, an environmental specialist with the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, a sovereign entity headquartered in Juneau, told Salon, expressing concern about the mines' potential impact on hunting and fishing -- not only in the case of an accident, but because of the industry's reputation for harming water quality in general. The CCTHITA joined with native groups in central Alaska this past March to form the United Tribal Transboundary Workgroup to pass resolutions and formally express their concern about the projects to a delegation in D.C. As of last count, Hanlon said, 12 federally recognized tribes had joined the workgroup.
Alaskans are not left entirely without redress, thanks to a 1909 treaty that established the International Joint Commission, a binational organization charged with regulating the shared waters between the U.S. and Canada and resolving disputes in a way that's purportedly "unbiased, scientifically-based, inclusive and open to public input." Anti-mining activists see this as their best course of action among extremely limited options -- while the IJC isn't capable of passing any binding resolutions, it would at least give them a voice in the decisions being made across border. And there's some, if limited, precedent for this sort of thing working out: in 1985, the IJC took up the case of a proposed British Columbian mine on the transboundary Flathead River; after four years of technical reports and public hearings, it recommended against it, citing concerns about potential impacts to fisheries and habitats. The coal company behind the mine killed the project soon after that, although it cited the low coast of coal as its rationale for doing so.
Currently, commercial fishermen, conservation groups, tribes, citizens and representatives of Pacific salmon-producing states are organizing to get the attention of the State Department, which can formally bring a referral to the commission. "The failure of the Mount Polley tailings pond dam in British Columbia validates fears Alaska’s fishermen have regarding Canada’s proposed development of large-scale hardrock mineral mines near transboundary rivers with Alaska," Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat, wrote in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, urging him to take up the issue. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) echoed his concerns, telling reporters, “we have to show these people that salmon know no boundaries."
Everyone I spoke with in Alaska was careful to stress that they're not anti-mining, per se -- though it's easier to oppose development when you shoulder many of the risks, and stand to gain none of the benefits. Instead, they're stressing their desire for a seat at the table, for their concerns to factor into the cost-benefit analysis when it comes to such massive mines in such environmentally sensitive areas.
"Project after project keeps getting proposed and approved," Hardcastle said, "and yet we're no farther along in being involved, in being asked if we're okay with this." Hopefully, she said, an IJC process would look not just at individual projects like KSM, but at the potential cumulative impacts of all these proposed projects on all three watersheds. "We don't mean to say that we can stop development in another country," Hardcastle added. "It's more of a question of, can we discuss this together?"