Wrangell joins other southeastern communities and tribes in calling for cross-border mine reforms

The Stikine River flows into the sea at Wrangell. Mining and energy projects proposed for upstream locations in Canada are worrying some local and tribal governments. (File / CoastAlaska News)

Wrangell has partnered with a dozen other local and tribal governments in the Southeast to call for greater protection from mines in Canada that span transboundary watersheds.

The congregation and residents of Wrangell say the problem is particularly pressing for the community at the mouth of the Stikine River, which flows into British Columbia.

Wrangell’s gathering has unanimously called on Canadian regulators to immediately suspend the approval, development and expansion of mines upstream of the waterways of Southeast Alaska. It also called on the British Columbia provincial government to permanently ban the practice of storing liquid mine waste behind earth dams.

This is because there is no financial or legal protection for tribes and communities in southeast Alaska that depend on cross-border salmon river basins. When a mine dam fails in Canada, it argues that the downstream waste could devastate the environment and economies of communities like Wrangell.

Wrangell Mayor Steve Prysunka says he saw firsthand how mines were abandoned in Canada. “And I’m here to tell you it was crazy,” Prysunka told the congregation at a meeting on October 26th.

In a previous job, he went canoeing on the Iskut River – the largest tributary of the Stikine – near the old Johnny Mountain mine. “This was shortly after the shutdown and they literally walked away. We went into a building and the beakers with Bunsen burners and hanging rain protection were still in the laboratory. It was like they just disappeared. And over the course of three or four years, I watched this spoil pond flow down the mountainside … It was this unreal turquoise color that was just unnatural. It reminded me of Lake Louise in Alberta. And it was just filled with all these minerals and flowed all down into the Iskut and the Stikine. “

Mining industry publications report that the former Johnny Mountain Mine was further cleaned in 2017.

But Prysunka’s key point was that it is important to protect Wrangell from pollution from contaminated sites. The district’s resolution indicates that the Stikine River is an integral part of Wrangell’s fishing industry, the work of the community’s Marine Service Center, and the traditional indigenous lifestyle.

Wrangell-based artist Brenda Schwartz-Yeager spoke out in favor of the action at the gathering session Tuesday.

“I believe that for all of us here, whether you’re a fisherman, a health worker, an instructor or a boat repairer, a little bit of the Stikine River runs through almost everything we do here in Wrangell,” Schwartz-Yeager told the gathering. “I don’t think this community would even exist if it weren’t for the remarkable wealth and generosity of the Stikine. It’s a fragile ecosystem. “

Schwartz-Yeager told the congregation it was “incredible and frightening” the size of the spoil heaps upriver from Wrangell.

The largest mine operating in the Stikine River basin is the Red Chris Mine, operated by Imperial Metals since 2015. This is the same company that operated the Mt. Polley Mine, which failed an overburden dam in 2014. The overburden dam, the mine waste from the Red Chris Mine is more than twice as large.

“These mining companies have a pretty deplorable track record of taking responsibility for past messes they made,” Schwartz-Yeager said. “We have a lot to lose and they have a lot to gain and really not much to lose. I feel we need a seat at the table and I think this resolution will help us use the Treaty to give some teeth to the agreements that could help us downstream stakeholders. We only need one voice. “

The Petersburg Assembly recently passed a similar resolution calling on Canada’s neighbors to tighten restrictions on mines in transboundary Alaskan catchment areas, including along the Stikine, Taku, and Unuk Rivers.

The Mining Association of British Columbia responded with a letter defending its safety record. Asked for comment, the industry group referred to the October letter stating the BC mining sector had Improvements in the surveillance and safety of Tailings Dam in the years since the Mt. Polley Disaster.

The Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission is a coalition of 15 tribes that came together after the dam broke in 2014. A Wrangell tribal citizen, Tis Peterman, is a former executive director of the commission and said in an interview that they are still working on advocacy advocacy in transboundary watersheds.

“We believe we should have a voice as tribesmen in Southeast Alaska,” Peterman said.

Peterman says the Canadian government must recognize the rights of all indigenous peoples affected by its actions, not just those within a relatively new border: “Tribes have looked after the land pretty well for thousands of years. And having a say in how the waters in Southeast Alaska are affected is one of our rights. “

“It’s literally out our back door. Look over the return channel. There is Canada, ”added Peterman.

Wrangell’s local tribe, the Wrangell Cooperative Association, is a member of SEITC and had already passed a resolution calling for more engagement and protection from the effects of cross-border mines.

The years after the Mt. Polley mine disaster were renewed calls for applications for cross-border mining permits to be examined within the framework of the so-called International Joint Commission. The IJC was founded according to the Border Waters Treaty of 1909 and is supposed to settle water disputes between the US and Canada.

Alaska critics say, however, that the IJC’s call for oversight over cross-border mines has not borne fruit.

“Until we have binding safeguards in place, we’re just sitting under what everyone calls those ticking time bombs,” says Jill Weitz, Juneau-based campaign director for Salmon Beyond Borders, one of the organizations that have called for a resolution on cross-border mining for protection Wrangell’s government.

Like Peterman, Weitz notes that the Wrangell parish is only a few miles from the mouth of the Stikine River.

“Almost the entire bank corridor of the Stikine watershed is covered with mineral claims – 54% of the lower watershed of the river are covered with mineral claims that overlap with the habitat of salmon spawners,” explains Weitz. “We don’t delude ourselves that mining will stop or that any of us will stop mining in British Columbia. We need some of these resources for the energy transition, which is under way in the face of climate change. But mining can be done better, it has to be done better. “

Alaska and BC regulators have met regularly to discuss cross-border mining issues since 2016 under a bilateral agreement signed during the government of Gov. Walker was signed. And state officials say their British Columbia counterparts consult with them when reviewing permits for mines in transboundary watersheds.

Earlier this year, the BC government invited the SEITC tribal consortium to a meeting on cross-border mining and other indigenous environmental issues. It was the first meeting of its kind for southeastern tribes. That is in addition to Talks with the central government of Tahltan are ongoing on the Canadian side of the border on mining safety and indigenous contributions to the permit process.

This is not the first time Wrangell has called on the Canadian government to create a discussion table with Alaskan indigenous and local governments – the assembly passed resolutions in 2017, 2019 and 2020. But it’s a stronger call than before, with a call for an immediate pause in approving new mines and a total ban on debris.

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