A mining rush in Canada’s backcountry threatens Alaska salmon

  • Sunlight peeks through the clouds above Todagin Creek in the Skeena Mountains, British Columbia, Canada, where a number of new mines threaten the pristine watershed.

    © Carr Clifton, ILCP
  • A cow moose crosses Eddontenajon Lake in the Sacred Headwaters of British Columbia.

    Claudio Contreras, ILCP
  • Acid mine drainage from an adit at the 1950s-era Tulsequah Chief Mine -- which the owners hope to reopen -- flows directly into the Tulsequah River, then on into the Taku and Alaska.

    Chris Miller
  • The Forrest Kerr hydro project, the first of three run-of-the-river projects slated for Tahltan Nation traditional territory along the Iskut River.

    Courtesy Michael Fay, Unuk River Post
  • A spawned-out chinook salmon a half-mile from the headwaters of the Skeena River, in the Sacred Headwaters area of British Columbia.

    Claudio Contreras, ILCP
  • A Wet'suwet'en man fishes for salmon on a tributary to the Skeena River near Moricetown, British Columbia.

    Claudio Contreras, ILCP

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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."

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