A coalition of Alaska Native tribal governments and conservation groups today formally invoked Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross’s duties under a federal law to investigate six hard-rock mines in British Columbia, and their expected impacts on transboundary watersheds shared by the United States and Canada. The groups petition Secretary Ross to join the Department of the Interior and other federal agencies in bringing the controversy over these mines to the International Joint Commission, the governing body of the Boundary Waters Treaty between the two countries.
The Taku, Stikine, and Unuk rivers flow across the Canada-United States border, from headwaters in the Coast Mountains of British Columbia through Southeast Alaska to the sea. Their watersheds are rich with wildlife; and their salmon sustain local communities. Native peoples have relied on salmon and caribou from these watersheds for generations, and communities continue to do so today. Commercial fishermen from Southeast Alaska also rely on these watersheds, catching tens of millions of dollars’ worth of salmon from these three river systems annually. The watersheds collectively support hundreds of Alaskan workers and their families.
The watersheds are now endangered by the development of metals mines in British Columbia, including the six subjects of the groups’ petition: the Tulsequah Chief, Red Chris, Schaft Creek, Galore Creek, Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell, and Brucejack mines. All involve large-scale infrastructure development and generate immense quantities of tailings and mine wastes. Water treatment will be required in perpetuity. The threats of acid-mine drainage and heavy metals pollution—not to mention catastrophic dam failures—will hang over the watersheds for centuries after the closure of the mines.
The petition, submitted under the 1971 Pelly Amendment to the Fishermen’s Protective Act by Earthjustice’s Alaska regional office, analyzes the mine projects and their expected impacts on watersheds, and invokes the Commerce and Interior Departments’ shared duty to investigate when foreign nationals may be “diminishing the effectiveness” of U.S. conservation treaties.
Together, the petitions to the Secretaries of Commerce and Interior present evidence indicating that the British Columbia mines likely diminish the effectiveness of two treaties that protect Pacific salmon, steelhead trout, grizzly bears, and woodland caribou—namely the Convention for the Conservation of Anadromous Stocks in the North Pacific Ocean and the Convention on Nature Protection and Wild Life Preservation in the Western Hemisphere.
The groups urge the Secretary to engage other federal agencies in calling for a referral of the issue of harms from the six mines to the International Joint Commission. This body addresses disputes arising from the Boundary Waters Treaty between the United States and Canada. The Treaty, signed in 1909, governs the use of waters shared by the United States and Canada, and provides that “waters flowing across the boundary shall not be polluted on either side to the injury of health or property on the other.”
Where disputes arise as to the parties’ compliance with the Treaty, issues can be referred to the International Joint Commission for a recommended resolution. The request echoes a call by a May 12, 2016, letter from Alaska’s congressional delegation, suggesting a referral of the issue to the International Joint Commission as a potential solution.
The petition was made to Secretary Ross by the Central Council of Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, Craig Tribal Association, Douglas Indian Association, Friends of the Stikine Society, Ketchikan Indian Community, Klawock Cooperative Association, Organized Village of Kake, Organized Village of Kasaan, Organized Village of Saxman, Petersburg Indian Association, Rivers Without Borders, Salmon Beyond Borders, Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission, Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, Trout Unlimited, Wrangell Cooperative Association, Yakutat Tlingit Tribe, and Earthjustice.