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Know the West

A mining rush in Canada’s backcountry threatens Alaska salmon


Last summer, John Grace, one of the world's elite kayakers, traveled more than 3,000 miles from his North Carolina home into the wild northwest corner of British Columbia, to explore the Iskut River. It's the biggest tributary of the Stikine River, which flows all the way to the Alaska panhandle coast, and together they're the kind of big, untamed salmon-rich river system no longer found in the American West. On a sunny August day, deep in the backcountry, Grace and a few friends paddled toward the jaws of Iskut Canyon, hoping to reach a four-mile stretch of surging whitewater that no human had conquered before.

As they neared the canyon, the haunting silence of the rainforest closed in around them. Suddenly they found themselves in the midst of a vast construction camp. Workers were boring a tunnel into the mountain, part of a hydropower project to harness the great force of the river.

The work crew, employees of a private company, were equally surprised to see them, and the mood turned ugly: "They were complete cowboys," Grace recalled later. "They pulled up in a truck and told us to leave our stuff and come with them. They threatened to arrest us for trespassing."

The work crew detained the kayakers overnight, and then drove them about 30 miles to the nearest highway the next day. The legality of the crew's actions remains dubious. But the encounter clearly revealed the brash new Wild West of British Columbia -- millions of acres of mostly undeveloped forests, mountains and rivers bordering the Alaskan panhandle, where only a few thousand people now live.

The $720 million Forrest Kerr hydropower project -- a "run-of-the-river" design, which diverts the flow through pipes and turbines and then returns it to the river downstream -- is merely the first in a series of large natural resource developments in northwestern B.C. At least a dozen major new mines and many new hydropower projects are proposed. Some developments are already advancing through the Canadian regulatory process, and a crucial electrical transmission line is being extended nearly 300 miles to serve them.

A separate scheme would install a pipeline hundreds of miles across northern B.C. to convey bitumen from the huge Alberta tar sands mines to an expanded port in Kitimat, B.C., currently home to about 8,500 residents. If it gets built, tanker ships would navigate the treacherous, ecologically fragile coastal waters to haul Canadian crude to hungry Asian markets.

Many Canadian politicians have lined up to back this rush to develop natural resources. The developments would be mostly on "crown lands" managed by the provincial government -- Canada's equivalent of state land in the U.S. The provincial government, a mining cheerleader, says the developments will create 10,000 jobs and spur $15 billion in new investments. Meanwhile, the Canadian federal government, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, has unleashed an unprecedented assault on the country's environmental laws to expedite approval of these kinds of projects. Both governments are even subsidizing the new power line, using hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars.

There are some critics, mostly a few environmentalists and tribes in both B.C. and the U.S., who fear that the developments will degrade the region's wild character, harming ecosystems that support not only the salmon runs that Alaska and B.C. share, but also thousands of grizzly bears, wolves, moose and other large mammals. But so far, they're outgunned by the politicians and industry.

"We're at this transition point right now," warns J. Michael Fay, a biologist who lives part-time in a remote cabin near the Alaska-B.C. border. With backing from the National Geographic Society, Fay plans to hike across northern B.C. to the Alaska coast beginning next summer to document the area's biodiversity and some of the recent impacts upon it. In his view, the new mines, hydropower projects and power line will cause "a complete transformation of the landscape from wilderness to an industrial center. My hope is that public opinion develops to say this is all way too much, way too fast."

Different nations have developed specialties over the years: the Finns build ships, the Swiss run banks, and Canadians are world experts in separating minerals from mountains of ore. Greater Vancouver alone -- the biggest city in B.C. -- is home to at least 1,200 mining exploration companies, and the industry, going for gold, silver, copper and other metals as well as coal, is a major economic engine for the province, earning billions of dollars and paying almost $1 billion in taxes a year.

The industry's immense political power showed in September 2011, when B.C.'s top politician, Premier Christy Clark, unveiled her B.C. Jobs Plan, which called for eight new mines and the expansion of nine others by 2015. That announcement, combined with the power line's approval, made it clear that northwestern B.C. will be at the heart of the province's mining future.

Similar enthusiasm is being demonstrated at the federal level. Since Prime Minister Harper's Conservative Party won a majority of seats in Parliament in the spring of 2011, his administration has rewritten the law that historically prohibited the alteration and destruction of fish habitat. The revised law will protect only fish considered valuable to commercial, sport and Native fisheries, and offers no direct protection for habitat. A majority of Canada's freshwater fish, and up to 80 percent of the 71 species currently at risk of extinction, will likely lose federal protection.

The Harper administration also weakened the Navigable Waters Protection Act, which often required environmental assessments of developments affecting navigable rivers and streams. That law used to cover more than a million rivers and 32,000 lakes, but it now protects just 66 lakes and rivers. Some of northwestern B.C.'s key rivers -- the Taku, the Unuk, the Nass, the Stikine and the Iskut -- will no longer be protected.

Harper's administration repealed the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act -- roughly equivalent to the U.S. National Environmental Policy Act -- which required environmental assessments and impact statements. A new law imposes time limits on reviews and potentially limits public input and comment. Thousands of projects that would have undergone federal environmental scrutiny will no longer be assessed.

"They're removing barriers to permit the ramming through of major pipeline, oil and gas and mining projects," says Jessica Clogg, executive director of Vancouver's West Coast Environmental Law. "These changes essentially give big oil and mining companies what they have been asking for all along."

Many of northwestern B.C.'s mineral deposits are still untapped, largely because of their remoteness. The great American essayist Edward Hoagland wandered into the region in the 1960s and was amazed that a land so rich in resources appeared empty and undeveloped. He wrote that the region was "left in the 19th century by a fluke of geography and by the low-keyed Canadian temper."

A mining rush is feasible now for several reasons. The governments are subsidizing the construction of the transmission line -- to the tune of more than $360 million -- to provide the cheap electricity necessary to crush enormous volumes of low-grade ore. And because Harper's Conservative Party holds a majority of seats in Parliament, the party can pass any laws it wants, including regulatory rollbacks.

The projects that are furthest along in the regulatory queue include the Red Chris open-pit gold-copper mine, expected to be among the first powered by the new transmission line. It's located in the "Sacred Headwaters" area, where three of the Northwest's biggest salmon rivers -- the Stikine, Nass and Skeena -- begin flowing toward the coast. In the same region, an Ontario company plans to employ West Virginia-style mountaintop removal on Mount Klappan, to tap a large anthracite coal deposit. Nearby, Shell Canada wants to drill its coalbed methane leases. And at Schaft Creek, in the Stikine watershed, an Alberta-based mining company plans to develop a large copper-gold-molybdenum-silver mine, just upstream of Wrangell and Petersburg, Alaska.

The KSM Mine on B.C.'s stretch of Unuk River probably poses the biggest single threat to rivers and salmon. KSM's Toronto-based owner, Seabridge Gold, envisions up to four giant open pits, which will eventually consume three mountains believed to hold one of the world's largest deposits of copper and gold. Nearly 2 billion tons of tailings would be held behind two Hoover-sized dams. It's reminiscent of the Cold War era's fantastically ambitious development schemes, such as scientist Edward Teller's 1955 plan to use hydrogen bombs to create a new deep-sea Alaska port, or the so-called North American Water and Power Alliance, which planned to channel water from Alaska and Northern Canada to the Lower 48 and Mexico via a continent-long engineered Rocky Mountain trench.

These new projects would provide high-paying jobs in rural communities, including several that are populated largely by First Nations (Canada's term for the country's tribes). Some of the electricity would also allow at least one of these First Nations to retire its diesel generators. But the mass influx of young, well-paid workers with no cultural connection to the region is likely to cause social disruption. The projects will also require a new web of roads, with large trucks hauling the ore to ports, where it would be loaded on tankers headed to smelters and refineries in Asia. The overall increase in traffic -- in a region so remote that wealthy trophy hunters, anglers and skiers often have to travel by helicopter and floatplane -- is certain to impact the region's wildlife and its intact ecosystems. But the greatest concern is the risk of river pollution.

Discarded rock and tailings often contain sulfides; when those rocks are crushed and exposed to air and water, acid and heavy metals can be released into surface and groundwater. Such acid drainage is toxic to fish and aquatic ecosystems. It can begin decades after a mine has closed, and once it starts, it can set off a deadly chain reaction.

The industry downplays the risks and the history of pollution disasters around the world. Seabridge Gold has spent four years designing its KSM Mine, says company president Jay Layman. The rock storage and tailings facilities will be designed to withstand a 9.5 Richter scale earthquake, Layman adds, and "one of our waste-rock (dumps) will be double-lined with plastic, something you rarely see, so that there is no groundwater contamination." He notes that the company is required by law to post a bond, which he estimates would eventually total $600 million, to cover reclamation of the mine site and perpetual treatment of any runoff, if necessary.

But under B.C.'s regulatory system, negotiations over potential reclamation costs can be kept secret, and in many cases, reclamation bonds are inadequate. Seabridge Gold, which plans to break ground in 2014 and have the mine in production as early as 2019, probably won't even run the operation; it plans to eventually sell the mine to a bigger company. And no matter who runs the KSM Mine, structures like its earthen dams can't last forever, warns Guy Archibald, a chemist with mining experience who now works for the Juneau-based Southeast Alaska Conservation Council. "Mines like this turn into the equivalent of a nuclear waste repository, which has to be maintained forever. Otherwise, there's going to be a catastrophic failure at some point."

A few dozen Canadian and U.S. scientists wrote a widely published appeal to B.C. Premier Christy Clark in November 2011, asking her to "balance impending industrial development in northwest B.C. with the outstanding fish, wildlife and ecological values of this largely pristine region."

The region's intact freshwater habitats are among the rarest ecosystems on Earth, says Jim Pojar, a biologist and forest ecologist who signed the letter. The downstream reaches of the transboundary rivers are "salmon landscapes" where marine nutrients carried inland by big runs of salmon nourish virtually everything else, he says. These ecosystems will become even more important with climate change, because water temperatures to the south are expected to rise above the levels that salmon can tolerate. "Rivers like the Taku, Stikine, Unuk and Iskut may be one of the last climate change sanctuaries for salmon," Pojar says.

But the region is so remote, and the human population so small, it's difficult to draw attention to the potential impacts of the mining. Last August, I visited Hyder, an Alaskan town with roughly a hundred residents. It's at the end of a natural inlet called the Portland Canal, and its neighboring town, Stewart, B.C., which has about 500 residents, would serve as a port for some of the new mines.

Hyder and Stewart are remnants of a mining boom that reached its zenith decades ago. Today there are scores of abandoned mines in the mountains, some in various phases of redevelopment, and numerous tailings impoundments. Runoff from the old mines -- which were much smaller in size and impact than modern open-pit mines -- has "likely" degraded water quality in the Salmon River, which empties into the inlet near Hyder, according to Canadian environmental agencies. That pollution includes dissolved sulfate and high turbidity. Farther north near Juneau, the Tulsequah Chief Mine, on a B.C. tributary of the transboundary Taku River, has been leaching acid into the salmon-rich Alaska stretch of the river ever since a Canadian company began mining the site in the 1950s -- despite the Canadian government's repeated orders to a series of numerous owners that it be cleaned up.

Tom Holmes is among the Hyder locals who are worried about the new mining rush. When we meet in the Temptations Bakery and Deli on Stewart's main drag, Holmes describes how he got here: As a young man, he worked as a coal miner in his native Pennsylvania, but "had enough of that pretty quickly," then drifted west to Oregon and finally up to Alaska. He's in his early 60s, with a ponytail protruding from the back of his ratty leather Harley Davidson hat. He says he and other locals depend on coho salmon.

"It's a fragile wild run, and I rely on it for food in the winter," says Holmes, who fills his freezer with his catch each year. The value of salmon in the local economy transcends its importance as winter food. A spawning channel built on Fish Creek close to the towns attracts 30,000 tourists a year; they hope to see bears and even gray wolves feasting on returning spawners. On the day I visit, hundreds of ragged chum salmon are struggling up the creek. The 50 or so visiting bird watchers from Canada and the Lower 48 don't seem disappointed by the day's lack of bears; instead, they eagerly scout the trees for the birds that scavenge the carcasses.

Hyder and Stewart, like the rest of Alaska and B.C., share a profound, interrelated dependence on salmon, wilderness, and tourism. Yet even Alaskans like Holmes appear resigned to what's coming over the border. "People dangle jobs in front of you," he says. "Most don't think about anything else, other than a house and a truck."

The tribal communities on both sides of the border may have the best chance to slow and moderate the mining rush. That was apparent in the fall of 2011, when Seabridge Gold representatives came to Ketchikan, Alaska, for a public information session. Rob Sanderson Jr. was waiting. As the vice president of the Ketchikan Indian Community and vice chair of the Tlingit-Haida Central Council -- organizations that represent more than 28,000 southeast Alaska Indians of Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian heritage -- Sanderson wondered what would happen once the minerals were exhausted. "Just how do you plan on paying for ... protecting these dams after the mines are done after 52 years, and all of this stuff (waste rock and tailings and a soup of pollution) is backed up there?"

Sanderson says at least five southeast Alaska communities are located near the mouth of the Unuk River, downstream from the proposed KSM Mine site -- most with significant Native populations that rely on salmon from the river, as well as herring and oolichan from the river's mouth, and shrimp, crab and groundfish in the nearby marine waters.

Oolichan are of particular concern. The processed "grease" from these small, oil-rich anadromous fish has been a valuable commodity across the Northwest for millennia. Unuk River oolichan runs have been critically depressed since 2000, when the Alaska Department of Fish and Game closed the fishery. There are numerous theories about what's causing the decline: everything from warmer water and ocean acidification to pollution and by-catch by commercial fisheries. Meanwhile, king salmon runs -- the most important subsistence and commercial species on the Unuk River -- have collapsed. (Both fish disasters are also being experienced in other parts of Alaska.)

The Unuk's five salmon species are estimated to be worth $1 billion to Alaska's economy, effectively employing 7,000 people in fishing, processing and tourism. The KSM Mine would also threaten the neighboring Nass River system, which is much larger and even richer in salmon; the tailings would be in that river's watershed, while the waste-rock dumps would be in the Unuk River's headwaters. Sanderson says Alaska tribes are also worried about salmon and potentially degraded water quality on rivers to the north -- the Taku and the Stikine, which flow to the coast around Juneau and Wrangell.

The Ketchikan Indian Community is also reaching out to First Nations in B.C., strengthening the bonds among transboundary Tsimshian, Tlingit and Haida groups. (Sanderson himself was born in Alaska, but his mother is a Haida from B.C.). They're also sounding the alarm about the oil tankers that could soon access Alberta tar sands crude from the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline terminus at Kitimat. It's risky when tankers ply the narrow, turbulent shipping channels of the coast; the tribes haven't forgotten the massive 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill to the north.

"Right now, the biggest threat is that people are not educated enough," says Sanderson. "I don't think our local fishermen throughout southeast Alaska have a clue about the magnitude of what is about to happen in our own backyard."

But some of B.C.'s First Nations are divided in their evaluation of the risks and benefits. In the Stikine River watershed, members of the Iskut First Nation (part of the larger Tahltan Nation) have aggressively opposed the Red Chris Mine, coal mining on Mount Klappan, and Shell's coalbed methane plans, all in their backyard. But the Tahltan Central Council, which represents all 5,000 Tahltan members on resource matters, has signed agreements with the B.C. government supporting the construction of the new power line and the Forrest Kerr hydropower project. Other B.C. First Nations have also supported the power line.

That's why the Dogwood Initiative, an environmental group based in B.C.'s capital, has stepped back from the power line issue despite concerns about the cumulative impacts of mining. Executive Director Will Horton says that "local folks aren't standing up and fighting (the power line), so we don't come in like colonial outsiders and tell local people what's in their interests."

In Canada, both the federal and B.C. governments have rarely said "no" to a proposed mine -- a history not that different from the U.S., where the 1872 General Mining Act still gives miners nearly free rein on hundreds of millions of acres of U.S. federal land.

The Harper administration's regulatory rollbacks effectively offload much of a project's evaluation to B.C.'s environmental assessment office. But B.C.'s oversight has also been eroded by policy changes and political tinkering, including a requirement that the office's decisions be consistent with the policies of the government in power. The B.C. government also eliminated all regional mine reclamation inspectors in 2003, leaving just one staffer in the provincial capital. Today, there are three for the entire province.

"Adequate monitoring is not occurring and follow-up evaluations are not being conducted," concluded B.C.'s Auditor General, a government watchdog, in July 2011, referring to oversight of whether companies actually carry out commitments they made to get government environmental approval.

Alaska and the U.S. federal government are also not providing much oversight, even though many of the projects would affect rivers shared by both countries. Under the architecture of the laws in both countries, state and U.S. governments have no binding role in permitting the B.C. projects. They're merely invited to participate in environmental assessments of B.C. mines by the provincial Ministry of Environment. And recent staffing "shortfalls" have forced the U.S. Department of the Interior to withdraw from assessments of both the Red Chris and Schaft Creek mines in the Stikine watershed. Once U.S. agencies withdraw, they risk losing the legal leverage to file court actions over pollution from B.C. mines.

The possibility of legally challenging B.C. mines in U.S. courts is demonstrated by an ongoing case in Washington state, where the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation and Washington's government have sued a Canadian mining company for century-long releases of pollution from a B.C. smelter into the Columbia River, which flows into Washington. On Dec. 14, federal judge Lonny Suko in Yakima, Wash. ruled that the Canadian company, Teck Resources Ltd., is liable under U.S. law for the costs of cleaning up the pollution on the U.S. side of the border, which could run as high as $1 billion (the costs are not yet determined).

"If you pollute in B.C. and it pollutes the Alaska side, you could be financially liable for that -- the potential cost could be huge," says Tadzio Richards, a researcher and campaigner for Rivers Without Borders, a group based in Washington that focuses on transboundary river issues. But Southeast Alaska Conservation Council's Archibald says, "Legally, you do not have standing in court to bring an action (against the B.C. mines) if you did not raise the specific concern during the initial process" when B.C. agencies are evaluating the mine proposals.

Another barrier to protecting Alaskan rivers through litigation, says Archibald, is that there are currently no "scientifically defensible" baseline water quality studies for the Taku, Unuk and Stikine rivers. Such studies would measure existing levels of trace metals like lead, copper and arsenic, as well as alkalinity, acidity and turbidity. Without that information, it will be impossible for Alaska and U.S. agencies to act if B.C. mines pollute those rivers. "Even if a toxic chemical was released and detected, the state or nation would be unable to prove it was attributable to the mining and not a natural occurrence, because we have no idea what the natural conditions of these rivers are," Archibald says.

"Additional testing is desirable," agrees Jackie Timothy, southeast regional supervisor for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's Division of Habitat. "Funding and access are some of the challenges."

Some environmentalists and Alaska tribal leaders hope that an obscure international treaty might provide leverage. Last March, the Tlingit-Haida Central Council passed a resolution calling for Alaska and the U.S. State Department to "require that the Transboundary Waters Treaty of 1909 be followed in all aspects pertaining to mining projects along the Alaskan-Canadian border." The Ketchikan Indian Community has passed a similar resolution.

The 1909 treaty mandates that neither country should generate water pollution that causes injury to health or property in its neighbor. But both the U.S. and Canadian federal governments would need to step forward, agree that a problem needs to be addressed, and open themselves to criticism and scrutiny for their handling of the region's resource development. That seems unlikely, particularly on the Canadian side.

And the prospect of a B.C. mining rush has drawn little attention outside the region. The National Geographic Society, headquartered in Washington, D.C., is among the few who are highlighting it. Two of its scientists -- Wade Davis and J. Michael Fay -- live seasonally in the region, and have emerged as advocates for a slower pace of resource development. Davis invited photographers from the D.C.-based International League of Conservation Photographers to come to the Stikine watershed to document the region before the boom. Their images were published in Davis' 2011 book, Sacred Headwaters: The Fight to Save the Stikine, Skeena, and Nass. (Some also are published here.)

Last summer, Fay scouted the route for his "Megatransect" expedition, taking photos from his two-seater float plane. The expedition would be fashioned after Fay's late-1990s Megatransect, in which he trekked across 2,000 miles of central Africa with backing from the Wildlife Conservation Society, recording the wonders there. That effort helped persuade Gabon's president, Omar Bongo -- a supporter of the oil and timber industries -- to designate 13 new national parks encompassing more than 10,000 square miles. Bongo died in 2009 amid allegations of corruption, and those parks are plagued by problems including wildlife poaching, but they're still considered a landmark in global conservation, providing habitat for gorillas, elephants and other wildlife.

Fay plans to begin his Megatransect of B.C. next year: a two-year-long walk from near the Alberta tar sands across to the coast. He'll rely on periodic aerial food drops for sustenance, and acknowledges that he'll be forced to wait out the worst parts of the Northern winter. He warns that any existing parks and protected areas in northwestern B.C., and any new ones that are designated in the future, might not be able to protect transboundary rivers from the kind of pollution mines can generate. Even if 99.9 percent of a watershed is protected, he says, a single mine on a tiny piece of land could still have huge impacts on a salmon river. And the way things look now, there's no one like Gabon's former president with the power and will to moderate the B.C. mining rush.

Christopher Pollon is a Vancouver, B.C.-based freelance environmental journalist. To research this story, he explored northwest B.C. by helicopter, road, mountain bike and boat in August 2012. He's a contributing editor for a Vancouver online magazine, The Tyee, and his work appears widely in Canadian newspapers and magazines. His website is www.chrispollon.ca.

This coverage is supported by contributors to the High Country News Enterprise Journalism Fund.

Note: The Dec. 14 U.S. federal court ruling in Yakima, Wash. -- holding a Canadian company liable for pollution of a river flowing into the U.S. -- was not mentioned in the version of this story in the HCN magazine, because the ruling occurred after the magazine was published.