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Bilateral Working Group releases report on transboundary water monitoring

Southeast Alaskans Respond to Report

Posted & Edited By MARY KAUFFMAN


February 28, 2021
Sunday PM

(SitNews) Victoria, BC, Juneau Alaska - According to British Columbia and Alaska's Bilateral Working Group, the four-year effort between B.C. and Alaska to examine water quality in the Stikine, Taku, and Unuk transboundary watersheds brought together government agencies, Indigenous Nations, industry, and the public to ensure the environmental, cultural, and economic values of these rivers are protected.

"This program has been an extraordinary partnership of many dedicated and knowledgeable people, and is a great example of what can be achieved when we work together," said George Heyman, B.C.'s Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy. "Water and wildlife don't recognize borders, and so it's up to all of us to protect our critical and priceless watersheds regardless of jurisdiction."

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"Baseline data is incredibly important to understand the health of our transboundary waters, " said Jason Brune, Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

Brune said, "The data has not shown a measurable impact to Alaskan waters from historical mining activities in B.C. and will serve as a foundation to assess potential impacts from future industrial activity as well."

The final reports of the B.C. - Alaska Transboundary Rivers Monitoring Program were released last Thursday and concluded that these rivers continue to support and sustain aquatic life in conjunction with mining and other land use activities according to a press release from the Alaska DEC and BC province.

The State of Alaska and the Province of British Columbia released their final report on the B.C.- Alaska Transboundary Rivers Monitoring Program on February 25th, claiming “extraordinary partnership” across the border and conclusion of the program after river sampling for just two years.

However, while data collection for water quality and fish health in the shared Taku, Stikine, and Unuk Rivers is important, some Southeast Alaskans responding say this report is extremely limited in scope, and the State of Alaska and B.C. province grossly misrepresent their collaboration with Tribes in Alaska, First Nations in B.C., and U.S. federal agencies in their press release about the final data report. 

Furthermore, Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission, Salmon Beyond Borders, and United Fishermen of Alaska say Alaska DEC and B.C.’s characterization of their monitoring efforts dramatically underestimates the current situation as they do not address the future risks associated with large-scale industrial mining in the B.C. headwaters of these crucial shared salmon rivers. Now, more than ever, we need an international framework with Tribal and Federal leadership and community engagement to determine the future of these iconic watersheds -- just as thousands of Alaskans, Tribes, commercial fishermen, municipalities, and the Alaska congressional delegation have requested for years.

Rob Sanderson, Jr, Chair, Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission (SEITC):  “Since the Dunleavey Administration came in, we have not been invited to any meetings. Everything fell off the table. This work is just getting started but they declare it ‘The End’.”

Frederick Olsen, Jr, Executive Director, SEITC added, “We found out about the report in the press. No data from Central Council Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska nor Ketchikan Indian Community, the two Alaska Tribes named in the report, was included.  Where is the supposed collaboration with Tribes?”

Jill Weitz, Director, Salmon Beyond Borders: "The characterization of this report clearly shows that Alaska and B.C. agencies are not willing nor able to grapple with the huge challenges facing our shared rivers, yet they are trying to control the conversation to suggest “everything is fine” while undermining the concerns of Tribes, commercial fishermen, and thousands of Alaskans. The State of Alaska has yet again demonstrated why there is incredible need to create a framework that establishes binding and enforceable protections for these rivers at the federal level. ”

Frances Leach, Executive Director, United Fishermen of Alaska: “Our salmon populations in the Taku, Stikine, and Unuk are already struggling. We have made every attempt possible to engage the State of Alaska on this issue, and the fact that they arrived at these premature conclusions is a disservice to Alaskans and the fishing communities of Southeast Alaska. We need our federal delegation to elevate this issue to the highest levels.”

While the data report and the work of the Bilateral Working Group is a step forward to ensure the environmental, cultural and economic values of our rivers and communities are protected, the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska (Tlingit & Haida) has not been engaged with the Alaska-B.C. Bilateral Working Group or its Technical Working Group on Monitoring since 2018, which diminishes the collaborative effort described in the data report. 

“Our way of life depends upon the health of our transboundary waters and it’s important for Alaska tribes and B.C. First Nations to be fully engaged for true collaboration to exist," said President Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson. “This data report should not be viewed as a final report. No one should say they’ve found no environmental harm and conclude their efforts. This is just the beginning.”

The historical mining activities in B.C. have been a long-standing concern for Southeast Alaska tribes and serves as a warning of how mega-mines now permitted and under development in B.C. may escape regulation and any requirements for best practices, mitigation, remediation or strict liability. Meaningful engagement and collaboration is still needed to prevent the potentially devastating and irreparable impacts from hard rock mining projects in B.C. that have the potential to be many times larger than the Mount Polley mining disaster in B.C. which occurred in 2014. 

“Make no mistake, Tlingit & Haida supports responsible mining,” said President Peterson. “Many of our tribal citizens work in mining, but these mines must operate safely and responsibly and with best practices and strict liability for harm to the environment.” 

For the past five years, Tlingit & Haida’s Native Lands & Resources department has been collecting baseline water quality data on the head waters of several transboundary rivers in Southeast Alaska. This data was not included in the recently released joint data report. Tlingit & Haida is advocating for federal government appropriations to complete a comprehensive baseline study of the transboundary water ecosystems and water basins, along with key indicators to identify pollutants that mining projects predict will occur within their environmental documents. 

Tlingit & Haida say they will continue to provide outreach to other governments to fulfill the Tribe’s duty to protect their way of life and seek a seat at the table along with other Alaska tribes and B.C. First Nations to implement a transboundary water resources management framework.

Quoting last week's news release from British Columbia and Alaska's Bilateral Working Group, the program was initiated out of the 2015 Memorandum of Understanding and Statement of Cooperation (Agreement) signed by the Governor of Alaska and Premier of British Columbia. The agreement called for the creation of a Bilateral Working Group (BWG) consisting of the commissioners of the Alaska departments of Environmental Conservation, Fish and Game, and Natural Resources and the deputy ministers of the British Columbia ministries of Energy, Mines, and Low Carbon Innovation, and Environment and Climate Change Strategy. The BWG seeks to foster ongoing collaboration on several deliverables to enhance and protect the shared environment, transboundary rivers, watersheds, and fisheries. The program focused on a review of existing environmental data, implementation of a joint water sampling program, partnerships with local Indigenous Nations, industries, and environmental groups.

With the Bilateral Working Group's approval of the final reports, the B.C.- Alaska Transboundary Rivers Monitoring Program has now concluded its work. Given the existence of other sampling programs planned by state, federal or provincial agencies throughout the transboundary region, there is no need to continue the joint program. Alaska and B.C. will continue to collaborate on efforts to ensure the long-term protection of the shared waterways.

The report released by British Columbia and the state stated, water and sediment samples were tested for a number of elements, such as: cadmium, copper, selenium, zinc, arsenic, iron, manganese and nickel. Findings included:

  • Some water sample results exceeded B.C. water quality guidelines at the B.C. sample sites. However, there were no exceedances of Alaska water quality standards for all samples taken downstream of the B.C.-Alaska border.
  • In some cases, element concentrations in water samples were above provincial guidelines upstream from mine sites, likely reflecting waters with naturally elevated mineral levels.
  • Sediment samples in both jurisdictions identified sites with concentrations of some elements above guidelines. Again, the elevated levels are largely attributed to naturally occurring mineral deposits in several areas.
  • Water quality testing showed significant agreement between data collected by government and data collected by industry.

Biological sampling looked at the presence of contaminants in migratory and resident fish species in the watersheds.

  • Fish sample results showed that the concentrations of elements in juvenile resident fish varied between sample sites in each watershed.
  • Resident fish species (such as Dolly Varden char) sample results in the Taku watershed revealed similar results both upstream and downstream of the Tulsequah Chief Mine.
  • In all fish sampled, the total mercury concentrations were below Health Canada's maximum limit for human consumption.


On the Web:

Final report of the B.C.-Alaska Transboundary Rivers Monitoring Program


Source of News:

Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy

Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation

Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska

United Fishermen of Alaska

Salmon Beyond Borders

Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission (SEITC)


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