Groups say threats to Pacific salmon, steelhead, grizzly bears, and woodland caribou, undermine U.S. conservation treaties
View of the Tulsequah River, looking east towards the confluence with Taku River. Photo courtesy of Chris Miller / Trout Unlimited
Juneau, AK —(ENEWSPF)–June 27, 2016. A coalition of conservation and Alaska Native groups today formally invoked Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell’s duties under a federal law to investigate six hard-rock mines in British Columbia, and their expected impacts on transboundary watersheds shared by the United States and Canada. The petition asks Jewell to join with other federal agencies in calling for a referral of the controversy over these mines to the International Joint Commission, the governing body of the Boundary Waters Treaty between the two countries.
The six hard-rock mines, located in British Columbia, all involve large-scale infrastructure development and immense quantities of tailings and mine wastes. See detailed map.
The Taku, Stikine, and Unuk rivers flow across the Canada-United States border, from headwaters in the Coast Mountains of British Columbia through Southeast Alaska to the sea. These watersheds are rich with wildlife, and their salmon harvests sustain local fishing enterprises and Alaska Native and First Nations communities. Native peoples have harvested salmon and caribou from these watersheds for generations, and continue to rely on such harvests today. Commercial fishermen from Southeast Alaska also rely on these harvests, harvesting tens of millions of dollars worth of salmon from these three rivers annually. The watersheds collectively support hundreds of Alaskan workers and their families.
The watersheds are now endangered by the development of metals mines in British Columbia, including the six subjects of the groups’ petition: the Tulsequah Chief, Red Chris, Schaft Creek, Galore Creek, Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell, and Brucejack mines. All involve large-scale infrastructure development and generate immense quantities of tailings and mine wastes. Water treatment will be required in perpetuity. The threats of acid-mine drainage and heavy metals pollution—not to mention catastrophic dam failures—will hang over the watersheds for centuries after the closure of the mines.
The petition, submitted under the 1971 Pelly Amendment to the Fishermen’s Protective Act by Earthjustice’s Alaska regional office, analyzes the mine projects and their expected impacts on watersheds, and invokes the Interior Department’s duty to investigate when foreign nationals may be “diminishing the effectiveness” of U.S. conservation treaties.
The petition presents evidence supporting a finding that the British Columbia mines diminish the effectiveness of two treaties that protect Pacific salmon, steelhead trout, grizzly bears, and woodland caribou, namely the Convention for the Conservation of Anadromous Stocks in the North Pacific Ocean and the Convention on Nature Protection and Wild Life Preservation in the Western Hemisphere.
The groups urge the Secretary to engage other federal agencies in calling for a referral of the issue of harms from the six mines to the International Joint Commission. This body addresses disputes arising from the Boundary Waters Treaty between the United States and Canada. The Treaty, signed in 1909, governs the use of waters shared by the United States and Canada, and provides that “waters flowing across the boundary shall not be polluted on either side to the injury of health or property on the other.” Where disputes arise as to the parties’ compliance with the Treaty, issues can be referred to the International Joint Commission for a recommended resolution.
The petition echoes a call by a May 12, 2016 letter from Alaska’s congressional delegation, suggesting a referral of the issue to the International Joint Commission as a potential solution.
The petition was made to Secretary Jewell by the Craig Tribal Association, Friends of the Stikine Society, Inside Passage Waterkeeper, Organized Village of Kasaan, Rivers Without Borders, Petersburg Indian Association, Salmon State, Sierra Club of British Columbia, Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, Trout Unlimited, United Tribal Transboundary Mining Work Group, and Earthjustice.
The following are statements from the groups:
Clinton Cook, Sr., President, Craig Tribal Association: “As a Haida tribal leader I’ve been taught to cherish our traditional values, respect our elders, enhance our way of life as hunter—gatherers, and respect our natural resources. When these are threatened we feel threatened. Our goal is to protect these from selfish interests who only see commerce and not the harm it can cause to our land and our way of life.”
Frederick Olsen, Jr., Chairman, United Tribal Transboundary Mining Work Group: “The development and operation of the B.C. Mines could severely impact life on the U.S. side of the border. Already, the Tulsequah Chief Mine has polluted the Taku watershed for decades. We need federal involvement, but rather than ‘federal overreach,’ we currently experience ‘federal under-reach.’ The U.S. government has a fiduciary responsibility to federally recognized Tribes—we maintain a special government-to-government relationship. We call on the federal government, in this case Secretary Jewell, to formally get involved. We are all in this together.”
Guy Archibald, Science Director, Inside Passage Water Keeper: “This action underscores the fact that existing treaties recognize that these watersheds and the fish and wildlife they support are internationally significant above and beyond any value to a particular state or province. The issue of large scale mining in is region requires international oversight.”
Jill Weitz, Trout Unlimited Alaska: “Alaskans continue to demand action under the Boundary Waters Treaty, and we will use the domestic tools at our disposal to bring our Federal governments to meaningfully engage with Tribes, provide sound scientific investigations, and take action internationally to protect the welfare of these watersheds and the people who depend upon them. The bottom line is that this is an international problem and it demands proactive Federal action.”
Kenta Tsuda, Associate Attorney, Earthjustice: “Canadian authorities are letting these projects go ahead, and the U.S. government is still waiting on the sidelines. This Petition provides yet another reason for the government to take action, and calls on Secretary Jewell to join in protecting the interests of citizens and tribes that the Federal Government represents on the international stage.”
The film Xboundary, by Ryan Peterson, explores the large-scale open-pit mining boom currently underway in northwest British Columbia, Canada. Concerns over risks posed by the mines were heightened with the August 4, 2014, catastrophic tailings dam failure at Mt. Polley Mine in the Fraser River watershed.
Additional video, Water is Life: “To try to put a measure on why clean water is so important is hard to do, except that it is what this community is,” says Petersburg resident Karin McCullough in Water is Life, a film by Inside Passage Waterkeeper on the heritage, livelihoods, and futures that rely on a healthy Stikine River.
Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.
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