The British Columbia and Alaska governments signed an agreement Thursday to deal with the longstanding issue of the impact of B.C. mines on transboundary waterways.
B.C.’s energy and mines minister called it “a milestone,” but Alaska environmental groups aren’t so sold on it.
The Statement of Cooperation on the Protection of Transboundary Waters will allow both jurisdictions to work on water quality monitoring, environmental assessment and permitting of mines.
“We have a documented agreement between the two jurisdictions on how they’re going to approach the management of transboundary water,” B.C. Minister of Energy and Mines Bill Bennett told the News on Thursday.
“We’ve never had that before, it’s quite a significant milestone.”
Water quality data collected in waterways that flow between both jurisdictions will help determine what impact future mines will have on the environment, Bennett said.
The testing will start by the first half of 2017, he added.
The agreement implements the terms of another document signed between the two jurisdictions in November 2015.
Bennett said negotiations between B.C. and Alaska and consultations with every affected B.C and Alaska First Nation took place over the past 11 months.
For the environmental group Rivers Without Borders (RWB), the agreement doesn’t go very far.
It’s concerned about old mines leaking toxic waste into rivers that flow from B.C. to Alaska, and the associated risks to wildlife.
“We don’t put much faith in this statement of cooperation,” said Chris Zimmer, RWB’s Alaska campaign director. “It doesn’t protect us from a Mount Polley-type accident.”
In 2014, a dam at B.C.’s Mount Polley mine burst, releasing 25 million cubic metres of contaminated water into B.C. rivers.
The priority, Zimmer said, should be for B.C. to reclaim and close those mines, including the Tulsequah Chief mine, south of Atlin.
The mine has been leaking acid mine drainage for the past 50 years.
Efforts to reclaim it failed after two companies that wanted to restart the mine went bankrupt.
The most recent one, Chieftain Metals Inc., went into receivership in September.
It operated a water treatment plant in 2012 for a brief period, before shutting it down, citing higher than anticipated costs and a vast amount of toxic sludge. The mine’s acidic water now flows into a pond.
B.C committed to take care of the mine if Chieftain’s receiver is unable to do so. Inspectors went to the mine after Chieftain went into receivership, Bennett said.
“They’ve gone over the site with a fine tooth comb,” he said.
The province is also working on an environmental risk assessment.
“Then we will know what the real risks are and what we’re going to have to do to remove those risks,” Bennett said.
But Zimmer lambasted the province for not acting sooner when it realized Chieftain Metals Inc. was in violation of its mining permits.
“It seems like Minister Bennett wants to wait until we see a bunch of dead fish go belly up and maybe (then) clean it up,” he said.
Bennett said the province took action, ordering the company to “take a number of steps.”
“It looked to us (like) they were going to do what we ordered them to do,” he said. “The announcement that they were bankrupt came as a great surprise, not only to the government but to the mining world.”
Ultimately, Zimmer said, the issue should go before the International Joint Commission, which is tasked with solving transboundary disputes and protecting water quality along the U.S./Canada border.
“It’s tailor-made to the situation we’re in right now,” he said.
The federal governments also have more money to deal with the reclamation, Zimmer said.
The State of Alaska, he pointed out, has no money to pay for that. The state has been hit hard by falling oil revenue, cutting programs and hiking taxes to balance its budget.
Bennett said the funding has to be worked out but that costs should be split evenly.
Contact Pierre Chauvin at firstname.lastname@example.org