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Alaskans express concerns about Chieftain

Frustrations over the continued closure of the water-treatment plant at the Tulsequah Chief mine site near Atlin, B.C., are spilling into Alaska.

Frustrations over the continued closure of the water-treatment plant at the Tulsequah Chief mine site near Atlin, B.C., are spilling into Alaska.

Chieftain Metals, which bought the property when previous owner Redfern went bankrupt, closed the plant in June due to lack of funds. The company has not said when it will reopen.

While Canadian and British Columbian regulatory agencies wait for Chieftan to secure financing, Alaskans are wondering what they can do, and what their options are, said Chris Zimmer, the Alaska campaign director for conservation group Rivers Without Borders.

“People are at the end of their rope with Chieftain,” said Zimmer.

The Tulsequah Chief mine site is located on the Tulsequah River, just upstream from where it meets the Taku River and the Alaska-British Columbia border. It is right in “Juneau’s backyard,” Zimmer said.

Alaska is “on the dirty end of this,” he said. Since the project affects both Canada and the United States, international treaties, like the Pacific Salmon Treaty and Boundary Waters Treaty, need to be considered, said Zimmer.

In an Aug. 13 letter, Juneau’s mayor, Bruce Botelho, told Canadian Environment Minister Peter Kent that Alaskans worry that Chieftain doesn’t have enough money to restart the water-treatment plant. Botelho expressed similar concerns two years ago. Juneau has yet to receive a response from Canadian and British Columbian agencies, the letter says.

It is “unacceptable” that the B.C. government would choose to do nothing to clean the site if Chieftain’s plan doesn’t work, said Zimmer.

The plant’s closure has some looking for other ways to clean up the water that don’t involve mines. The Alaska Trollers Association, which represents the state’s commercial salmon fishermen, wrote to Juneau legislators earlier this month reminding them of Tulsequah’s potential harms to salmon. “It seems prudent to develop options to prevent mine-drainage pollution, and to do so in a way that does not rely on the presence of a working mine,” the letter states.

Zimmer is touting an alternative to running the water-treatment plant: the mine shafts could be sealed shut, so that water no longer flows in to become contaminated.

In the early 1990s, the mine’s previous owners developed a plan with SRK Consulting for cleaning the site that did not involve an operating mine, wrote Dr. David Chambers in an Aug. 20 opinion piece in the Juneau Empire. Regulatory agencies allowed the company to delay enforcing that plan, according to Chambers, who has studied the effects of mining for 20 years.

Cleaning up the water pollution was a requirement of Chieftain’s purchase of the site. The company plans to complete a new feasibility study on the project in the fourth quarter of 2012, the company wrote in a July report to the B.C. Ministry of Environment.

Chieftain doesn’t expect to secure its remaining financing until six to nine months after its feasibility study is complete. Company officials couldn’t say when the water treatment plant would run again.

“We continue to advance the Tulsequah Chief project, conducting optimization studies for our feasibility study while working with the authorities to monitor the impact of historic acid mine drainage,” said Timothy Lee, director of investor relations, in an email to the News.

Contact Meagan Gillmore at