Senators Call for Action on Transboundary Issues
Edited/Posted By MARY KAUFFMAN
June 15, 2019
The U.S. Senate delegations of Alaska, Idaho, Montana, and Washington sent a letter Thursday to Premier John Horgan of British Columbia (B.C.) urging attention and action on key issues related to transboundary mining practices. The letter, led by Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), which was also signed by U.S. Senators Dan Sullivan (R-AK), Mike Crapo (R-ID), Jim Risch (R-ID), Jon Tester (D-MT), Steve Daines (R-MT), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), and Patty Murray (D-WA), encourages standards of oversight and accountability for B.C. development projects that are similar to what is required on the U.S. side of the border, and expresses a desire for continued communication and engagement.
This multi-state, bipartisan letter follows multiple letters by the Alaska Delegation to the Department of State over the last five years expressing concerns about B.C. mining practices and potential downstream effects on U.S. resources and livelihoods. The letter highlights Congress’ continued work to address these concerns and urges Premier Horgan to meaningfully engage on the issue while working towards solutions with stakeholders, affected states, and the federal governments on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border.
“This letter shows solidarity from our states and calls for greater protections for our transboundary watersheds. Reforms that ensure mining projects in British Columbia don’t impact Southeast Alaska are essential to protecting our way of life, and must include a system of financial assurances to assure sustained protections of vulnerable natural resources,” said Senator Murkowski. “It is my sincere hope that this message can inform bilateral discussions going forward, as those at the table are more aware of the interests and actions of the U.S. Congress.”
“I’ve been working for several years now with our Canadian counterparts—at the local, provincial and federal levels—to raise awareness and concern about the potential impacts posed by mining development to streams flowing across our borders into Alaska’s Southeast communities and waters,” said Senator Sullivan. “While we need to continue these discussions with our partners to the east, we also need to begin putting forward concrete steps that will ensure that all British Columbian mining projects have the level of oversight, monitoring, financial assurances, and mitigation planning necessary to protect Alaska’s world-class fishery resources in Southeast."
In their letter, the members highlighted past and current efforts to protect American interests in the face of potential environmental and economic impacts resulting from large-scale mines in B.C., including improved water quality monitoring.
“As you know, Alaska, Washington, Idaho, and Montana have tremendous natural resources that need to be protected against impacts from B.C. hardrock and coal mining activities near the headwaters of shared rivers, many of which support environmentally and economically significant salmon populations. Additionally, indigenous peoples whose lands are affected by past, present, and proposed mines near transboundary rivers have voiced concern and requested that the U.S. and Canadian governments undertake cumulative assessments of impacts to communities, cultural and natural resources, as well as the enforcement of the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909,” the Senators wrote. “These transboundary watersheds support critical water supply, recreation opportunities, and wildlife habitat that support many livelihoods in local communities. We appreciate the diverse array of benefits that responsible management of our shared watersheds can bring, and view this as an opportunity to engage and collaborate toward a mutually beneficial future.”
Quoting a joint news release from Salmon Beyond Borders, Headwaters Montana, & National Parks Conservation Association, for decades, B.C.’s large-scale, open-pit hard rock and coal mines have polluted rivers that flow from B.C., fouling U.S. waters with acid mine drainage and other contaminants. In the Elk/Kootenai watersheds, shared by Idaho, Montana and B.C., selenium from Teck Resources’ coal mines has killed and deformed fish and threatens native trout and Kootenai River white sturgeon. In Alaska, acid mine drainage from B.C.’s Tulsequah Chief mine into the transboundary Taku River, one of the region’s most productive for salmon, has continued for more than 60 years. Compounding threats, B.C. is rapidly approving new mines and expanding existing mines in the lands around all four surrounding states’ rivers. Most recently, British Columbia opened a permit process for a controversial new mine in the headwaters of the Skagit River, which flows into Washington state through North Cascades National Park, and into the Puget Sound.
Current B.C. regulations do not require a cumulative analysis of mining impacts to these shared rivers, though the land around them, in at least one instance, is more than 50 percent covered by mining claims and leases. Furthermore, current regulations do not require consent from First Nations, private property owners, or allow for meaningful public input by U.S. stakeholders and tribal citizens.
The senators’ letter is the latest action aimed at cleaning up B.C.’s mining operations in transboundary rivers.
The Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission (SEITC) also commended the action taken by the eight United States Senators in their joint letter to British Columbia (BC) Premier Horgan. Quoting a SEITC news release, "We face an international problem requiring international solutions. The US and BC must work vigilantly together to protect our lands and precious watersheds."
The Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission said Indigenous peoples are disproportionately affected by past, present and proposed mines near transboundary rivers and have long voiced concern. Protecting our people’s future requires more than cursory assessments of impacts and business as usual. It requires enforcement of the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909. BC already violates the Treaty by allowing the Tulsequah Chief Mine to pollute the Taku River watershed for over 60 years and counting. "We have lived on and managed these lands and waters for millennia. Our voice is critical at the decision table so that both the US and BC can collaborate toward a mutually beneficial future. We seek permanent protections from future disaster."
According to SEITC, for the boundary Waters Treaty to be enforced, the Federal governments must invoke the International Joint Commission. The IJC has 100 years of experience solving issues that arise in shared watershed between the US and Canada. Without the IJC, “mining companies have been partying like it’s 1909,” said SEITC Chair Rob Sanderson, Jr. (Central Council Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska Vice President) “We’re not stakeholders here. We are the indigenous people of the land.”
Climate change has produced bigger and more frequent major weather events and this is not currently accounted for said SEITC. Changes in the future environment can make today’s brilliantly designed tailings storage facility an epic lake of poison just waiting to breach decades from now.
“Some places you leave alone,” said John Morris, Sr, Douglas Indian Association Tribal Vice-President, “We know our places well. Let us help decide how our places live on.”
SEITC said they appreciate the Memorandum of Understanding between Alaska and BC, but they need much more. "We need Federal and international involvement and we need a binding agreement in addition to enforcing the laws already in place like the Boundary Waters Treaty."
Said Lovey Brock, of Wrangell Indian Association “What are we to do? Somehow BC enforces policies that threaten our rivers but don’t enforce treaties and laws that would help protect clean water.”
According to SEITC , members of Congress must call for binding protections and adequate financial assurances in shared transboundary watersheds that protect our communities. "We must have indigenous leaders included in the decision-making process. BC and Canada must consider the impacts to communities across the international lines."
Quoting a SEITC news release, "We as the Indigenous people of this land, like the fish and water do not recognize these lines. Decision makers must use objective science, both Western and Indigenous. We, too, want transparent data collection as well as baseline and long-term water quality monitoring. We must work together across the international borders to better manage our critical shared watersheds."
SEITC said they appreciate good words on the subject of their transboundary issues. "We look forward to action from both of our Federal governments."
The Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission is comprised of fifteen federally recognized Tribes of Southeast Alaska whose mission is to create a unified voice for Indigenous peoples across the international border who are facing impacts from development and industrialization rapidly occurring in our region. Member Tribes include Metlakatla, Saxman, Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, Klawock, Kasaan, Hydaburg, Craig, Kake, Douglas, Sitka, Yakutat, Klukwan, and Central Council Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska.
The region encompassing Southeast Alaska and Northwest British Columbia is the world’s last and largest intact temporal rainforest. Four major pristine rivers, the Alsek, Taku, Stikine, and Unuk feed the salmon forest and sustain local communities.
British Columbia has embarked on a massive initiative to develop several large open pit mines in the Canadian headwaters of these crucial rivers. The new NW Transmission Line and BC Hydro project power these mines.
SEITC said BC borrowed $38 billion of public money and expects to recoup the cost by rubber-stamping new mines. BC’s weak environmental safeguards and lack of enforcement combined with no engagement from Canadian or US. Federal governments creates a significant risk to downstream fisheries and the continued existence of the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian peoples said SEITC.
To address this gap, SEITC seeks to leverage the ability of the sovereign indigenous governments on both sides of the border to enter into government-to-government relationships and create cross-border unity in order to require consultation and consent of Alaska Natives and Canadian First Nations.
Quoting a joint news release from Salmon Beyond Borders, Headwaters Montana, & National Parks Conservation Association, even residents of B.C. mining towns have grown alarmed by the extent of air and water pollution, and in May, thirty British Columbian NGOs launched their own campaign to reform B.C.’s mining regulations.
“We know we have a tremendous problem with contamination flowing from B.C.’s mining sector,” said Robyn Allan, former President and CEO of the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia. “B.C.’s own auditor general has chided the province for our lax rules and lack of enforcement. We absolutely need to ensure British Columbia’s taxpayers don’t end up paying for industry shortfalls and to bring British Columbia’s mining practices into the 21st century, both for Canadians and for the U.S. citizens living downstream.”
In May, tribal leaders in Washington state expressed their “grave concerns”regarding B.C.’s plans to allow Imperial Metals to mine the headwaters of the Skagit River, the most important salmon river in Seattle’s Puget Sound area. They warned of “the potential for disastrous results,” and noted that just five years ago a mine failure by the same company released millions of gallons of toxic copper and gold tailings into B.C. lakes, drinking water and salmon runs.
“The Skagit River is critical to the survival of salmon and orca,” said Scott Schuyler, policy expert for the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe. “It’s the lifeblood that connects the ocean with the mountain interior, and any thought of mining its headwaters only proves how out of touch British Columbia’s regulators are.”
Similar concerns are echoed by members of Alaska’s commercial fishing industry, who are asking for federal intervention to hold B.C.’s mining regulators accountable.
“This is a multi-state, international problem for which we need a multi-state, international solution,” said United Fishermen of Alaska Executive Director Frances Leach. “Right now B.C.’s massive open-pit mines and waste dumps put some of Alaska and B.C.’s most important salmon rivers, and the fishing jobs that rely on them, at risk. Alaska fishermen and the thousands of people across the world who enjoy wild salmon expect and deserve better from B.C. regulators.”
Montana fishing guides agree.
“The United States is not a settling pond for Teck Resources and the rest of Canada’s mining industry,” said former Kootenai River fishing guide Mike Rooney. “It’s our hope that Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and Premier John Horgan act to protect our businesses, resources and citizens by requesting intervention under the Boundary Waters Treaty. Anything less is not the solution this international problem deserves.”
In Idaho, where millions of dollars have been spent recovering endangered sturgeon in transboundary rivers, the upstream threat is particularly alarming.
“We commend our Congressional leaders for taking steps towards a long-term solution that will benefit our waterways on both sides of the border,” said Matthew Nykiel, conservation associate with the Idaho Conservation League. “A letter like this is a powerful message to British Columbia, and it shows that we are stronger together. Mining in the B.C. headwaters of transboundary rivers is a problem we all share, and it will require an international response to solve it."
Salmon Beyond Borders Director Jill Weitz summed up what is at stake. "Today, every single border-state senator joined with commercial and sport fishermen, business owners, communities, tribes, and tens of thousands of Americans to highlight for Premier John Horgan the serious issue of B.C.'s transboundary mining contamination."
Weitz said, "U.S. taxpayers have spent billions of dollars restoring these rivers and fisheries. It would be a tragedy to have that investment undone by B.C. mining contamination. And until B.C. enacts adequate financial assurance requirements, U.S. taxpayers will remain on the hook for all future damage to U.S. resources by B.C.'s mining sector."
"It's our hope that Premier Horgan will prioritize wild salmon and the health and wealth of B.C. citizens, and protect taxpayers in both countries, by acting on the senators' requests for enforceable standards, water quality monitoring, and international safeguards for international rivers," said Weitz.
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Edited by Mary Kauffman, SitNews
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