Mining project in Haines generating controversy

A mining exploration project in Haines, Alaska is getting a mixed reaction from local residents and making headlines in Canada over concerns about salmon and the region’s famous eagles.

A mining exploration project in Haines, Alaska is getting a mixed reaction from local residents and making headlines in Canada over concerns about salmon and the region’s famous eagles.

Vancouver-based Constantine Metal Resources has been exploring a deposit north of Haines, which it hopes will become a high-grade, underground, copper-zinc-gold-silver mine.

But the site, called the Palmer Project, is near the Klehini River, which feeds into the Chilkat River. Both waterways are part of the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, home to the highest concentration of bald eagles in the world.

Critics fear that a mine could leak toxins into the Chilkat River and affect the five species of salmon that use it, harming subsistence fisheries and the local tourism industry.

“You’re talking about a very real threat that will last for hundreds and hundreds of years,” said Gershon Cohen, who has lived in Haines for 33 years and worked on wastewater issues. “Many folks come down from Whitehorse to fish in our rivers down here, and my guess is they wouldn’t be happy to see the fish compromised either.”

The Palmer deposit is also just upstream of the Chilkat Indian Village of Klukwan, an ancient Tlingit village on the Chilkat River.

The tribal government opposes the project, and is trying to have the Chilkat River receive a special designation that would give it the highest level of environmental protection available.

Tribal council president Kimberley Strong could not be reached for comment.

In the last year, the project and its detractors have gotten attention from the Vancouver Sun, Vice News and others.

But Liz Cornejo, manager of exploration and community for Constantine, said the project will be good for the local economy.

The company had 31 employees and direct contractors in 2016, 22 of whom were local. It also employed a local road construction crew.

“It has always been our policy to find ways to enhance local benefits from work on the projects,” she said in an email.

Cornejo also said it’s too early to speculate about what the mine would look like, as the project is still in the exploration phase. She did say it’s “highly unlikely” the project would use a tailings pond, and that dry stacked tailings, which are seen as safer for the environment, are a possibility.

“Everyone agrees that water’s important, fish are important, eagles are important,” she said.

And there is local support for the project. A recent environmental assessment of four kilometres of road the company wanted to build generated hundreds of public comments and a wide range of opinions.

“I give them a high five for their endeavors to make this a fail safe project,” wrote one commenter.

“We need more good jobs,” wrote another.

Others were less flattering.

“Trading clean water and healthy fisheries for a mine is BAD BUSINESS!” someone wrote.

From another: “I am concerned about the effects of this project on salmon, and consequently, tourism businesses like mine that rely on eagle and bear viewing.”

Debra Schnabel, executive director of the Haines Chamber of Commerce, said she doesn’t know exactly how much support there is for the project in Haines. But local businesses are following the development closely and are interested in projects that could boost the economy, she said.

Still, it’s clear the project’s opponents will not go down without a fight.

Last year, the Chilkat Indian Village nominated the Chilkat River to be designated as outstanding national resource water, or Tier 3 water, by the State of Alaska.

The designation would give the river the state’s highest level of protection, and would ban any discharges into the river that might lower its water quality.

“Our resolve is strong,” former tribal council president Jones Hotch Jr. told KHNS last February. “This is not just for us, it’s for our children’s children’s children.”

Cohen said that if Constantine is really committed to not polluting the river, it shouldn’t have a problem with the designation.

But Cornejo said the company feels the Tier 3 designation might not be right for the Chilkat because the high level of protection could “restrict subsistence, recreational, and commercial use of the river, beyond what is needed to protect aquatic resources.”

That process is in limbo for the time being, as the state doesn’t yet have a method in place to evaluate Tier 3 nominations.

Cohen said the state has been “negligent” in failing to come up with an evaluation process before now. He hopes the river will eventually receive Tier 3 designation.

“This is where I’ve been fishing to feed my family since I moved here in the early ’80s,” he said. “I am not against having mines, but I don’t believe that it’s okay to have a mine in all places.”

Contact Maura Forrest at maura.forrest@yukon-news.com