To further strengthen neighborly bonds, British Columbia Minister of Mines Bill Bennett met with miners, fishermen, legislators and state regulators during an early November trip to Alaska.
“I hope, and I believe, that we will be able to continue to work closely with Alaska on all of the issues that we share,” Bennett said during a Nov. 5 presentation at the Alaska Miners Association 2014 Convention.
These shared issues are part and parcel of a common border that stretches through roughly 775 miles (1,250 kilometers) of one of the richest metals regions on the planet as well as cutting through a number of prolific salmon streams.
“The mining projects that we have in northwestern B.C., not all of them but most of them, have the potential to impact water that flows into Alaska and therefore Alaskans have every right to be interested in that and, I think, to even be worried about and to make sure what is done in B.C. is done properly,” the B.C. mines minister conceded.
A number of Southeast Alaska communities, worried about the impact of upstream mined development, are requesting the International Joint Commission, an organization formed in 1909 to deal with U.S-Canada trans-boundary water issues, launch a formal review of northwestern British Columbia mine development projects located on trans-boundary rivers or streams.
Bennett, however, believes the concerns raised in Southeast Alaska are better addressed on the state-provincial level.
“It is my intention to work really closely with Alaska to make sure we can manage our trans-boundary issues – British Columbia and Alaska,” he informed his Alaska neighbors.
Mt. Polley’s wakeBennett’s outreach to Alaska comes in the wake of a tailings dam failure Aug. 4 at Imperial Metals’ Mount Polley copper-gold mine in central British Columbia. While this mine is located south of the Alaska-British Columbia transboundary region, a number of promising gold and copper projects further north are located upstream of the Southeast Alaska Panhandle, which lies between the northern half of British Columbia and the Pacific Ocean.
“The Mount Polley mine is not in a transboundary area that could directly impact Alaska, but I understand that it might raise questions about existing and proposed tailings storage facilities that are in transboundary areas,” Bennett acknowledged in a guest editorial written for Mining News.
As to Mount Polley itself, Bennett had few new details to share with his Alaska neighbors.
There are currently three investigations into the cause of the tailings failure.
The government of British Columbia has assembled a panel of three engineers – Norbert Morgenstern, an award-winning authority in field of geotechnical engineering; Steven Vick, a geotechnical engineer from Colorado; and Dirk Van Zyl, professor, University of British Columbia Normal B. Keevil Institute of Mining Engineering – to investigate the geotechnical standards, design of the dam, maintenance, regulations, inspections regimes and other matters that the engineers deem pertinent to the failure.
Bennett said the independent panel has broad authority to carry out its investigation.
Above and beyond investigating Imperial Metals, the panel has full access to the engineering firms, contractors and employees involved in the design, construction and maintenance of the failed tailings impoundment.
“They can also look at my ministry and the ministry of the environment and give us some advice on whether these two ministries were doing everything they could do to oversee on operations like Mount Polley and was there anything that we could have done differently that would have helped us avoid this breach” the mines minister informed the crowd in Anchorage.
Once the panel determines the cause of the dam failure, it will make recommendations on how to prevent such a catastrophe in the future. A report outlining the findings and recommendations is scheduled to be turned over to the provincial government and the local First Nations bands by the end of January.
In addition to the independent investigation being completed by the panel of engineers, the British Columbia government has two provincial law-mandated investigations being carried out by the ministries’ of environment and mines.
“I met with the commercial fishing folks this morning, and they have every right to want to know how we are going to practice mining in British Columbia,” Bennett said.
This concern by fisherman and others in Southeast Alaska is due to the number of advanced exploration projects in northwestern British Columbia that show promise of being developed in coming years – many of which are located upstream of waterways that flow through the Southeast Alaska panhandle on their way to the Pacific.
Tulsequah Chief (Chieftain Metals), Red Chris (Imperial Metals), Schaft Creek (Copper Fox Metals-Teck Resources), Galore Creek (Novagold-Teck), Brucejack (Pretium Resources) and Kisault (Avanti Mining) are among the B.C. projects located to the east of Alaska.
Next up: KSMSeabridge Gold’s Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell copper-gold project, which is located on a salmon-bearing river that flows into Alaska near Ketchikan, is the northwestern B.C. mine proposal of most immediate concern to people in Southeast Alaska.
“We are situated on a transboundary river, the Unuk River, approximately 22 miles (35 kilometers) upstream of the border,” Brent Murphy, vice president of environmental affairs, Seabridge Gold, explained during a Nov. 6 presentation at the Miners convention in Anchorage.
Over the past decade, Seabridge Gold Inc. has outlined 9.9 billion pounds of copper and 38.2 million ounces of gold in reserves at KSM.
“Based on the 2012 preliminary feasibility study, we project a 52- to 55-year mining operation at 130,000 (metric) tons per day,” Murphy explained.
Churning out a projected 850,000 ounces of gold and 195 million pounds of copper annually during the first five years of operation, and 500,000 ounces of gold and 150 million pounds of copper per year for the next five decades, KSM has the potential to be a boon to the economy of northwestern B.C.
While the project has been on the watch-list of fishermen and conservationists with transboundary environmental concerns, the Aug. 4 tailings breach at Mount Polley raised the level of alarm at a crucial juncture in the project’s permitting process.
In a letter to the Alaska delegation in Washington D.C., Wrangell Mayor Dave Jack wrote, “The recent tailings pond breach at the Mt. Polley mine and spill into the Fraser River have shaken confidence in the Canadian Government’s oversight of mining operations.”
In July, KSM acquired the provincial approvals it needs for development but federal authorization by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency is pending.
The downstream concerns of Alaskans were addressed in the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency report on KSM.
“The agency is satisfied that identified mitigation measures for the project would address potential impacts in Alaska on fish; recreational and commercial fisheries and human health from changes to water quality and quantity in the Unuk River,” CEAA wrote.
The federal agency was in the midst of a public comment period when the dam failed at Mount Polley, putting the KSM project and the pending decision by the federal environmental agency in the crosshairs of those worried about mine development. A number of concerned Alaskans are calling for the federal government to conduct a panel review, the highest level of scrutiny.
“Alaskans will face only downstream risk associated with KSM but will gain no direct employment or other economic benefits from this project. While there are no absolute guarantees that a Panel Review would prevent a catastrophe like what just happened at Mt. Polley, that level of scrutiny is the only thing that gives us any assurance that a similar catastrophe won’t happen again, this time polluting Alaska’s rich fishing grounds,” said Brian Lynch, executive director of Petersburg Vessel Owners Association.
While the four deposits that are included in the current mine plan – Kerr, Sulphurets, Mitchell and Iron Cap – are located in an area drained by the Unuk River, the processing and tailings storage facilities are located in an area drained by the Nass River, which runs to the south and does not cross the Alaska border.
Murphy emphasized that the Mitchell deposit, which is located upstream of Alaska, is currently oxidizing due to its recent exposure to air as a result of a subsiding glacier. This process is causing naturally occurring acid rock drainage. Removal of the sulfur and metal-bearing ore, along with the water management required by environmental law, is expected to stem the flow of acidic and metals-laden waters currently flowing into a tributary of the Unuk River.
“Because of the fact that once we go into the Mitchell Valley, we have to contain and treat all contact water, we predict that water quality in the Unuk River will actually improve – it is currently very poor,” he noted.
The Seabridge environmental affairs vice president informed the audience that the tailings dam design has been the subject of a thorough review by provincial and federal agencies in Canada; an independent review commissioned by local First Nations and state regulators in Alaska.
Kyle Moselle, the large project coordinator at Alaska Department of Natural Resources Office of Project Management and Permitting, confirmed that Alaska regulators has been actively engaged in the environmental assessment process for KSM as well as a number of other potential northwestern B.C. mines associated with transboundary rivers.
“The state of Alaska recently participated in the environmental assessment of the proposed KSM mine in the Unuk River watershed near Ketchikan, which is pending a final decision by the federal minister of environment, and we are currently participating in the assessment of the proposed Brucejack gold mine, which is also associated with the Unuk River,” Moselle explained during a Nov. 6 presentation at the Miners convention.
He said Alaska’s large mine permitting team, which coordinates the permitting activities for large mine projects in the state, facilitates Alaska engagement in projects.
Bennett said Alaska’s involvement during the KSM permitting process has been underplayed.
“It would be great if the general public in Alaska knew the extent to which there was that engagement by the state with that project,” the Mines Minister Bennett said.
“I am certainly prepared, as the minister responsible for mining in British Columbia, to work with Alaska and work with my colleagues in B. C. to make this process of engagement between the two jurisdictions more transparent,” he vowed.
Stronger bondsIn addition to getting the word out that Alaska does have a voice during the environmental assessment of British Columbia mines located upstream, Bennett hopes to head off cumbersome federal involvement by creating stronger bonds on the state, provincial level.
Bennett said British Columbia already has successful agreements with Montana and Washington – the province’s United States neighbors to the south – on rivers with mines and other industrial development before flowing south across the international border.
“So Canada and the U.S. have this history of being able to work through their differences and in my view that collaboration works best at the state-provincial level,” he said.
Bennett proposes that Alaska and B.C. work out a similar relationship.
“I came here to start a dialogue with Alaska; to encourage Alaska and British Columbia, my colleagues, to have some sort of cooperation agreement between the two jurisdictions,” he said.
Bennett hopes that a strong state-provincial agreement will prevent the International Joint Commission from getting entangled in what he believes is best resolved on a local level.
“I think that if the federal governments have to get involved – for example, through the International Joint Commission – it is almost too late. The relationship has deteriorated to the point that our federal governments think that they need to step in and take jurisdiction that would normally be the state and province’s,” he said.
Bennett made a similar pitch during a Nov. 6 meeting with U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who is the minority senior ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and is expected to take the chair of the committee in January when the Republican Party takes the majority of the seats in the U.S. Senate won in the Nov. 4 mid-term elections.