Alaskans cringe as new B.C. mine ramps up

Americans generally don't pay much attention to Canada. One sure way to fix that is to build a giant tailings pond uphill from the border.

Americans generally don’t pay much attention to Canada.

One sure way to fix that is to build a giant tailings pond uphill from the border, especially one with over one hundred million tons of potentially acid-generating tailings in the watershed of a famous salmon-bearing river loved by both First Alaskans and the Alaskan commercial fishing fleet.

I’m talking about the Red Chris mine, in the Stikine watershed just south of Dease Lake. Given the response from Alaska, they should have called it the Red Flag mine.

Alaskan Lieutenant-Governor Byron Mallott made a special trip to B.C. to investigate. He’s an Alaskan political heavyweight as both a Tlingit leader and a former mayor of Juneau. The region’s rivers are “key to southeast Alaska’s way of life including native cultures, community economies, recreation and subsistence, and, of course, its profitable seafood and tourism industries that employ thousands of people,” he said.

Other Alaskan politicians have also weighed in, including Senator Lisa Murkowski. “Canada is clearly not engaging with us,” she said earlier this year. “I met with the Canadian ambassador when I was in Whitehorse in September … I’m trying to elevate this.”

Since she chairs the powerful Senate committee on energy and also sits on the appropriations committee (watchers of House of Cards will know what this means), her close attention to Canadian issues must be giving the vapours to our embassy in Washington. Yukoners will be curious to see what she and the other senior Alaskans in Washington do when we ask them to help us on Shakwak funding, Yukon River salmon or ANWR and the Porcupine caribou herd.

The tension has been further heightened by other planned mines in the watersheds of rivers that pass through Alaska, as well as the fact that the company behind the Red Chris mine also owns the Mount Polley mine. Yes, that’s Imperial Metals. Their disastrous tailings pond breach last year at Mount Polley discharged five million cubic metres of tailings water into a nearby creek. (That’s 1.3 billion gallons to Alaskans).

Remember that the Red Chris mine is located in northern B.C., which has one of the most controversial land claims situations in Canada.

All of this raises an interesting question. If many in the mining industry are complaining how hard it is to get permits in the era of aboriginal title and U.S.-funded environmental campaign groups, how can such a controversial mine possibly be going into production?

The answer to this is that the Tahltan Nation has negotiated an impressive deal with Imperial Metals. According the Vancouver Sun, 87 per cent of Tahltan citizens who voted approved the arrangement.

The details are secret, but are said to include training, jobs, revenue sharing and – critically – close Tahltan involvement in an enhanced program of environmental monitoring at the mine. A majority of the monitors will be Tahltan citizens and independent third-party monitors will also be involved.

The First Nation also successfully demanded an independent expert review of the mine’s tailings pond plans. Imperial Metals accepted the 22 recommendations made by the review.

“Expanding the mine to its intended capacity will make the jobs, training and other benefits that we are using to build our nation possible. From here on our environmental oversight role – an important part of our agreement – will also start to expand,” said Tahltan Central Council President Chad Day when the mine officially opened last week.

The Sun also reports that 20 to 30 per cent of mine employees are Tahltan members, a figure which the First Nation hopes to boost to 50 per cent within the next decade.

This deal has undercut opposition to the mine by urban environmental groups, as well as by Tahltan citizens who don’t agree with their central council. Shortly after the Mount Polley disaster, an elders group called the Kablona Keepers blockaded the mine site for several weeks. Nonetheless, the mine opened.

The Imperial-Tahltan deal provides a template for future mining projects in B.C. and more broadly in Western Canada. Even controversial mining projects are feasible, as long as the local community is convinced the benefits outweigh the risks. This means careful management of environmental risks, as well as hiring local people and sharing the financial benefits with the First Nation.

It also helps that the mine expects to be open for more than 25 years, which means many years of benefits for the Tahltan. It also gives a longer payback for investments in training or mine services businesses.

The Alaskans are still opposed to the mine in public, but in private they’re probably glad the Tahltan talked Imperial Metals into a tougher environmental protection regime than the B.C. government initially asked for.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He won this year’s Ma Murray award for best columnist. You can follow him on Channel 9’s Yukonomist show or Twitter @hallidaykeith