The Trouble With Tailings: Toxic Waste ‘Time Bombs’ Loom Large Over Alaska’s Salmon Rivers

Mount Polley dam failure

There are a few unarguable truths about mine tailings, the pulverized rock, water and sludge left over from mineral extraction — mining is a messy business, the leftovers have to be dealt with forever and it’s impossible to guarantee against another tailings dam failure such as the Mount Polley catastrophe.

In B.C., there are 98 tailings storage facilities at 60 metal and coal mines, of which 31 are operating or under construction and the remaining 67 are at mines that are either permanently or temporarily closed

That means communities throughout B.C. and Alaska are looking nervously at nearby tailings ponds, which sometimes more closely resemble lakes, stretching over several square kilometres, with the toxic waste held back by earth and rock-filled dams. The water is usually recycled through the plant when the mine is operating, but, after the mine closes, water, toxins and finely ground rock must continue to be contained or treated.

It’s the realization that tailings have to be treated in perpetuity that worries many of those living downstream, especially as the Mount Polley breach happened only 17 years after the dam was constructed.

The concept of forever boggles people minds. In one thousand years is the bank account still going to be there? These people are going to be dead,” said Chris Zimmer of Rivers Without Borders.

Alaska Fishing Community Spurred to Action by Mount Polley Spill

Wrangell, Alaska, wharf

Wrangell, Alaska — A fishing boat chugs across the water in front of the patio at Wrangell’s Stikine Inn, temporarily disrupting dinner conversation as residents of the tiny Southeast Alaska town tuck into heaped plates of rockfish and chips.

At the next table, where a group of friends are celebrating an 80th birthday, the talk is all about the next day’s fishing plans. The new salmon smoker is working well, there were more than 40 crabs in the pots yesterday and everyone wants to be out on the water before 9 a.m. tomorrow because there are king salmon to be caught.

Commercial and sports fishing fill the freezers and wallets of Wrangell residents but, out of mind for many of them, behind the shield of the Coast Mountains, lurks a threat that could annihilate the area’s fishing and tourism-based economy.

'It’s the New Wild West': Alaskans Leery As B.C. Pushes For 10 Mines in Transboundary Salmon Watersheds


Long-held perceptions of Canada as a country with strict environmental standards and B.C. as a province that values natural beauty are taking a near-fatal beating in Southeast Alaska, where many now regard Canadians as bad neighbours who are unilaterally making decisions that could threaten the region’s two major economic drivers.

Fishing and tourism — each billion-dollar industries — are the lifeblood of Southeast Alaska, where glaciers sweep down into rivers home to five species of wild salmon and massive snow-covered peaks tower over fertile wetlands.

Tourism accounts for 10,900 jobs in the Alaska Panhandle and salmon fishing employs 7,300 people.

Air and water are the only ways into communities such as Juneau, the state capital, and almost seven million hectares, or three-quarters of Southeast Alaska, are within the Tongass National Forest, where industrial activity is limited.

But, upstream, in northwest B.C., there is a new-style gold rush with an unprecedented number of applications for open-pit gold and copper mines, some made viable by construction of the Northwest Transmission Line and all requiring road access.

Shell Abandons Fracking Plans For BC's Sacred Headwaters

Shell Canada announced that the company will immediately abandon plans to frack for natural gas in an area of British Columbia known as the Sacred Headwaters on Tahltan Nation traditional territory. The province of BC says it will issue a permanent moratorium on oil and gas tenures in the area.

A four-year moratorium, scheduled to expire today, began after Shell drilled three test wells in the area, igniting protest and blockades throughout the region and at Royal Dutch Shell headquarters in The Hague. In 2004, Shell was awarded a 400,000 hectare tenure in the Sacred Headwaters, the point of origin of the Skeena, the Nass and the Stikine rivers which are among the province's most important salmon-bearing waterways.

According to the Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition, Shell's plans involved the construction of nearly 300 kilometers of road and over 4000 wells, as well as pipeline infrastructure and compressor stations. 
In a separate agreement, BC will award Shell $20-million in royalty credits, as compensation for the lost tenure. The funds will be redirected toward a water recycling project at Shell's gas drilling operations elsewhere in the province.
“Shell has backed away from a project only a handful of times. The powerful, relentless movement led by the courageous Tahltan and supported by nearly 100,000 people from around the world has not only stopped Shell, but persuaded the BC government to permanently protect the region from any further gas development,” said Karen Tam WuForestEthics Advocacy senior conservation campaigner. 
“It’s an inspiring day when communities in northern B.C. can stand up to one of the largest oil companies in the world and win. Congratulations to the Tahltan, and to the citizens and government of British Columbia.”
Subscribe to stikine