Our transboundary watersheds
By Frederick Olsen, Jr (K’yuuhlgáansii)
August 23, 2021
Our transboundary watersheds, the Taku, Stikine, and Unuk rivers, that flow from Northwest British Columbia into Southeast Alaska, face an onslaught of too many industrial mining projects proposed for locations too close together to each other in far too sensitive areas. Those projects, and the way they are being approved without the consent or input of many of those who could be impacted, including Tribes and Southeast Alaskans, give many reasons for a pause in business as usual.
After the infamous Mount Polley disaster of 2014, the British Columbia Auditor General’s Report said that “business as usual” should not continue if the Province is to prevent such contamination-laden disasters in the future.Of course, business as usual does continue. Right now, in the Stikine River watershed, the Red Chris mine’s tailings storage facility features an earthen dam over half as tall as Seattle’s Space Needle. The dam needs to remain stable for a minimum of 250 years in order to keep the lake of poison it contains “safely managed.” The Kerr Sulphurets Mitchell project (KSM) would have two such lakes with each dam standing over 100 feet taller than the Space Needle.
In 2019, British Columbia passed the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act (DRIPA) in order to have the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples implemented throughout BC. In order to comply, BC must work with downstream Indigenous Tribal governments in Alaska on many transboundary issues.
The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed in 2015 and Statement of Cooperation (SOC) in 2016 by Alaska and BC acknowledges the importance of engaging with BC First Nations and Alaska Tribes, yet the Alaska sovereign Tribes were not a party to the MOU or SOC. Neither were Tribes consulted or included in any of the discussions conducted by the Bilateral Working Group, which has members from BC and Alaska.Fifteen Sovereign Indigenous Nations in southeast Alaska designated representatives to the Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission (SEITC) for purposes of government-to-government engagement on the transboundary mining issue.
This year, SEITC Chair Rob Sanderson, Jr. asked Minister Ralston of the BC Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation for an agreement between SEITC and his Ministry regarding several huge projects. In his reply, Minister Ralston mentioned that in order to work with SEITC, several BC Ministries would be involved and each would need to take time to conduct internal reviews.Because of the indefinite time period suggested by Minister Ralston, Chair Sanderson asked BC Premier Horgan to pause new permits, amendments to existing permits, and approval of new mining projects in British Columbia until such time as the completion of the internal reviews by the aforementioned Ministries are completed, and until there is a decision on our ability to consult.
So far, Alaska Tribes Ketchikan Indian Community and Wrangell Cooperative Association, Washington’s Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, and British Columbia’s Gitanyow First Nation have publicly supported SEITC’s call for “The Pause.”
SEITC and Salmon Beyond Borders also reached out to Southeast Alaska Tribes and municipalities, as well as community members, starting in August to gather support for a call to ban mine waste dams, like the one that failed at Mount Polley, in transboundary watersheds — and to request a pause to mineral development and exploration in transboundary watersheds until the United States-Canada Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples are upheld, and an international agreement on watershed protections is implemented.
Recently, several BC Ministries have agreed to a direct meeting with SEITC leadership. SEITC will meet virtually with representatives from BC’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation, and the BC Environmental Assessment Office. We hope that this is the start of a journey leading to a true partnership in international watershed governance. Our rivers will have a better chance to prosper when Indigenous governments get a strong say in river management. Our people have done this before. We want long-term solutions that will benefit all connected to the rivers that provide life for our wild salmon — and all of us.
Stay Tuned!Frederick Olsen, Jr (K’yuuhlgáansii)
Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission (SEITC)
Received August 20, 2021 - Published August 23, 2021
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