Wrangell joined a dozen other municipal and tribal governments in the Southeast in calling for stronger protections against mines in Canada that straddle transboundary watersheds.
The congregation and the residents of Wrangell say the problem is particularly urgent for the community, which sits at the mouth of the Stikine River, originally from British Columbia.
Wrangell’s assembly unanimously called on Canadian regulators to immediately halt the licensing, development and expansion of mines upstream of Southeast Alaska’s waterways. It is also calling on the BC provincial government to permanently ban the practice of storing liquid mine waste behind earth dams.
This is because there are no financial or legal protections in place for the tribes and communities of Southeast Alaska that depend on the transboundary salmon watersheds. If a mine dam were to fail in Canada, he argues that downstream waste could devastate the environment and the economy of communities like Wrangell.
Wrangell Mayor Steve Prysunka says he saw with his own eyes how mines were abandoned in Canada: “And I’m here to tell you that it was insane,” Prysunka told the assembly at the meeting. of a meeting Tuesday, October 26.
In a previous job, he organized canoe trips on the Iskut River – the largest tributary of the Stikine – near the former Johnny Mountain mine site. “It was shortly after closing and they literally left. We would go into a building and there would still be the beakers inside the lab with Bunsen burners and rain gear still hanging. It was as if they were disappearing. And for three or four years, I watched this tailings pond flow down the side of the mountain… It was this unreal turquoise color that just wasn’t natural. It reminded me of Lake Louise in Alberta. And it was just filled with all these minerals and it all flowed into Iskut and Stikin.
Mining industry publications report that the former Johnny Mountain mine was further cleaned in 2017.
But the most important point of Prysunka was that it’s important to protect Wrangell from legacy pollution. The Borough’s resolution highlights how integral the Stikine River is to Wrangell’s fishing economy, the work of the community’s marine service center, and the traditional way of life of the native population.
Wrangell resident and artist Brenda Schwartz-Yeager spoke out in favor of the action at Tuesday’s assembly meeting.
“I think for all of us here, whether you’re a fisherman, health worker, teacher, or boat repairer, a little water from the Stikine River runs through just about everything we do here in Wrangell. “, Schwartz -Yeager told the assembly. “I don’t think this community would exist at all without the remarkable wealth and generosity of the Stikines. It is a fragile ecosystem.
Schwartz-Yeager told the audience she found the size of the tailings upstream from Wrangell “amazing and frightening”.
The largest operating mine in the Stikine River watershed is the Red Chris Mine, operated by Imperial Metals since 2015. It is the same company that operated the Mt. Polley mine that suffered a tailings dam failure in 2014. Red Chris mine is more than twice as high.
“These mining companies have a bad enough track record to take responsibility for the previous damage they have caused,” said Schwartz-Yeager. “We have a lot to lose, and they sort of have a lot to gain and really not a lot to lose. I feel like we need a seat at the table, and I feel like this resolution will help us move closer to using the treaty to spice up agreements that might help us, downstream stakeholders. We just need a voice.
The St. Petersburg assembly recently passed a similar resolution calling on its Canadian neighbors to tighten restrictions on mines in transboundary Alaska watersheds, including along the Stikine, Taku, and Unuk rivers.
The BC Mining Association responded with a letter defending its safety record. Asked for comment, the industry group highlighted the October letter that British Columbia’s mining sector made improvements to tailings dam monitoring and safety in the years following the Mount Polley disaster.
The Southeast Alaska Native Transboundary Commission is a coalition of 15 tribes who came together following the dam failure in 2014. Citizen of the Wrangell Tribe, Tis Peterman, is a former executive director of the commission and said in an interview that they are still working to be represented as stakeholders in transboundary watersheds.
“We believe, as the tribesmen of Southeast Alaska, that we should have a voice,” said Peterman, “Because everything that is done on the BC side on the farm cross-border mining will affect downstream communities. “
Peterman says the Canadian government must recognize the rights of all indigenous peoples affected by its actions, not just those within a relatively recent border: “The tribes have taken good care of the land for thousands of years. years. And having a say in how the waters are affected in Southeast Alaska is one of our rights. “
“It’s literally through our back door. Look through the back channel. There is Canada, ”added Peterman.
The local Wrangell tribe, the Wrangell Cooperative Association, is a member of SEITC and had already passed a resolution calling for more engagement and protection from the effects of cross-border mines.
The years following the Mt. Polley mine disaster have renewed calls for cross-border mining permit applications to be considered under the so-called International Joint Commission. The IJC was formed under the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 and aims to resolve water disputes between the United States and Canada.
But critics in Alaska say the call for IJC monitoring of cross-border mines has not paid off.
“Until we put some binding protections in place, we’re just ducks below what everyone calls these time bombs,” said Jill Weitz, Juneau-based campaign manager for Salmon Beyond. Borders, one of the organizations that called for a resolution on cross-border mining. protections from the Wrangell government.
Like Peterman, Weitz notes that the community of Wrangell is a few miles from the mouth of the Stikine River.
“Almost the entire riparian corridor of the Stikine watershed is staked by mining claims – 54% of the lower river watershed is covered by mining claims that overlap salmon spawning habitat,” Weitz explains. “We have no illusion that mining is going to stop or that any of us are going to stop mining in British Columbia. We need part of these resources for the energy transition underway in the face of climate change. But mining can be done better, it must be done better.
Alaska and British Columbia regulators meet regularly to discuss cross-border mining issues since 2016 as part of a bilateral agreement signed under the administration of Governor Walker. And state officials say their counterparts in British Columbia are consulting them when reviewing permits for mines in transboundary watersheds.
Earlier this year, the Government of British Columbia invited SEITC tribal consortium to meet on cross-border mining and other tribal environmental concerns. It was the first such meeting for the Southeastern tribes. It is in addition to ongoing discussions with the central government of Tahltan on the Canadian side of the border on mine security and the contribution of aboriginal people to the permitting process.
This isn’t the first time Wrangell has asked the Canadian government to create a discussion table with Alaska’s Indigenous and municipal governments – the assembly passed resolutions in 2017, 2019, and 2020. But it’s a demand stronger than before, with a call for an immediate pause on the authorization of new mines and a total ban on earth tailings dams.
Read the full Wrangell Assembly resolution below:
Contact KSTK at [email protected] or (907) 874-2345.