Alaskans tired of living under the threat of B.C.’s poorly regulated mines are taking the matter to the state’s House Fisheries Committee in an effort to escalate an international response to ongoing issues such as the slow leakage of acidic waste from the deserted Tulsequah Chief Mine in northwest B.C. into the watershed of one of the richest salmon runs in the B.C./Alaska transboundary region.
On Thursday the committee will assess a resolution sponsored by several House Representatives “urging the United States government to continue to work with the government of Canada to investigate the long-term, region-wide downstream effects of proposed and existing industrial development and to develop measures to ensure that state resources are not harmed by upstream development in B.C.”
Although Tulsequah is a catalyst, concerns go deeper as B.C. is handing out permits for a clutch of proposed new mines close to the Alaskan border, including the KSM mine, the largest open-pit gold and copper mine in North America.
Chris Zimmer, Rivers Without Borders Alaska campaign director, said Alaskans are troubled by B.C.’s lack of enforcement of mining regulations — underlined by the Mount Polley tailings dam collapse and its $40 million taxpayer funded cleanup — and the alarming practice of accepting bonds from companies that do not cover reclamation costs.
“If B.C. can’t ensure that the Tulsequah Chief is cleaned up, why should Alaskans have any trust that much larger mines like KSM won’t pollute our waters?” Zimmer asked.
‘B.C. Can’t Continue Saying it is World Class’ in Mining
A brief spark of hope that B.C. would act on Tulsequah flared after Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett visited Southeast Alaska in 2015 and was, reportedly, shocked by leakage from abandoned mine works and sludge ponds.
“I think B.C. is going to have to find a way to rectify it sooner rather than later and I think it is a most legitimate criticism of us by those folks in Alaska that don’t like it,” Bennett said at that time.
Since Bennett’s 2015 visit, B.C. government contractors have moved the pipe, so water runs into a containment pond before overflowing into the river, and cleaned up leaking fuel tanks and improperly stored chemicals, Zimmer said.
However, last fall, Chieftain Metals Corp., the latest owners of the mine, declared bankruptcy after running a water treatment plant for only six months and Bennett then appeared to backtrack on the promise of a full-scale clean up.
Bennett, who is not running in the May provincial election, did not return calls or emails from DeSmog Canada.
No provincial money has been publicly earmarked for the Tulsequah clean up, which David Chambers of the Center for Science in Public Participation estimates would cost about $3.8 million in Canadian dollars.
Total annual water treatment costs, which would have to be continued in perpetuity, would be about $3.4-million, according to Chambers’ study.
“And that’s just one tiny little mine,” Zimmer said.
Even if a new company takes over, there is no assurance it will clean up Tulsequah because, unlike Alaska, which estimates a realistic reclamation figure and then demands full payment up front, B.C. has no such guarantees, Zimmer said.
But in B.C. there is no assurance that the polluter will pay even if the company does not go bust, said Heather Hardcastle of Juneau-based Salmon Beyond Borders.
“The notion that reclamation sureties are not adequately assessed in B.C and companies don’t have to put up full reclamation sureties up front, as they have to do in Alaska and many other countries in the world, means B.C. can’t continue saying it is world class in terms of their mining sector,” she said.
Alaska sets the amount of the bond as part of the environmental assessment process, with public input, meaning that the bond is usually a realistic calculation of the cost of reclamation. The state then demands cash or bonds up front before the project can proceed.
In contrast, in B.C. the Chief Inspector of Mines has complete discretion in setting the amount of the bond, meaning it is not a transparent process. The figure is generally set much lower than in Alaska and the entire amount does not have to be paid up front.
B.C., unlike Alaska, will also accept guarantees, rather than insisting on cash or bonds.
Compared to Alaska B.C.’s Mines Represent Massive Taxpayer Liability
A glaring example of the differences is illustrated in a brief that independent economist Robyn Allan is presenting to the Alaska State Legislature.
Teck Resources Ltd. operates the Red Dog Mine in Alaska, which is expected to require water treatment in perpetuity, a cost that has been included in the reclamation estimate of $558-million.
Teck has fully funded its liability obligation at Red Dog by posting a bond of $558-million with the State, said Allan, a former ICBC president and senior economist for B.C. Central Credit Union.
Just across the border in B.C., Teck, the largest mining company in the province, is responsible for 13 mines — six operating and seven closed — and the province has estimated reclamation liability at $1.4-billion, but has required only $510-million in bonding, according to Allan’s brief.
“The $1.4-billion reclamation estimate excludes significant requirements for ongoing water treatment, such as those at Teck’s coal mining sites in the Elk Valley. Teck’s in perpetuity liabilities are likely underestimated by hundreds of millions of dollars,” she said.
Teck Resources is the largest donor to the B.C. Liberals, contributing $1,502,444 to the party since 2008.
Since 2010, Norman Keevil, Teck board chair, has personally donated $65,585 and DeSmog Canada revealed last month that political donations to the Liberals made under the name of a Teck Resources lobbyist were actually made by the company and were registered in error.
B.C.’s Mining Sector ‘Dysfunctional’
Allan, in her brief, says environmental assessment, monitoring and compliance of B.C.’s mining sector is dysfunctional.
“It places the environment and the public on both sides of the Canadian and U.S. borders at serious long-term risk,” she wrote.
A recent report by the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre found B.C.’s mining rules have created a profound crisis of public confidence and should be investigated through a Commission of Public Inquiry.
“Mine reclamation liabilities in B.C. are underestimated and most mine operators are not required to provide full funding for the reclamation obligations that are estimated,” she said.
If B.C. adopted the Alaskan model of reclamation estimation and bonding, it would result in a more comprehensive and robust approach, according to Allan, who added in her brief that such changes could be made through policy adjustments rather than legislation.
Neither Alaska nor B.C. have an industry-funded pool for cleaning up accidental environmental damage or for paying compensation to those affected by mining accidents and companies are not required to have adequate insurance to cover accidents.
That begs the question why the mining industry is treated differently from other high-risk industries such as oil and gas, said Hardcastle, who believes the cross-border problem should be referred to the International Joint Commission, which operates under the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty.
Allan agrees that both federal governments need to work together to develop measures to ensure mines do not affect downstream resources and that there should be an industry-funded pool for reclamation costs and compensation not met by mine operators following an unintended environmental accident.
However, there first needs to be accurate and transparent reclamation cost estimates and full security posted before a permit is issued, she said in her brief.
“Regrettably, the province of B.C. does not intend to enhance the requirements of its subpar system despite recommendations in recent reports released by the B.C. Auditor General and the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs,” she wrote.
B.C. should also look at recent reforms Quebec made to its financial requirements for the mining sector, recommended Ugo Lapointe, Mining Watch Canada program coordinator.
Quebec requires 100 per cent financial assurance, with 50 per cent payable before the mine opens and 50 per cent in the first two years of operation, making it the strictest system in Canada, Lapointe said.
In contrast, B.C. remains one of the most problematic mining jurisdictions in the country, he said.