HAINES, ALASKA DEISHÚ/LḴÓOT AND JILḴÁAT KWÁAN, AK
Conservation organizations challenged a controversial wastewater discharge permit for the Palmer Project, a proposed multi-metals mine at the Chilkat Watershed’s headwaters on Tuesday.
Earthjustice filed an appeal in Alaska Superior Court on behalf of Lynn Canal Conservation, Rivers Without Borders, and the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council seeking more protective standards for wastewater discharge from mineral exploration conducted by Constantine Metal Resources Ltd (Constantine), a subsidiary of Vancouver, B.C.-based American Pacific Mining.
The appeal challenges disappointing aspects of a mixed decision by the Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) on August 18, 2023 that upheld an inadequate waste management permit, but also acknowledged DEC violated its own regulations when it set pollution limits for lead and other heavy metals that would violate Alaska water quality standards based on supposed natural conditions of nearby waters without the proper analysis or public notice. It follows an October 17, 2023, appeal of the same DEC decision by Constantine, seeking to avoid the additional analysis and public process that the Commissioner required. The groups also join the Chilkat Indian Village (Klukwan) (CIV) and Takshanuk Watershed Council in defending against Constantine’s appeal, which underscores the company’s desire to keep DEC decisions that benefit the project and degrade Chilkat Valley waters behind closed doors.
“Our communities depend on clean water, productive wild salmon runs and a healthy Chilkat Watershed,” said Chris Zimmer, Alaska Campaign Director for Rivers Without Borders. “The state has a responsibility to protect our rivers from potential mine-related pollution. If the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation isn’t willing to uphold basic water protections, it’s up to us to hold the agency accountable.”
The appellants challenge aspects of DEC’s August 15 decision to uphold a flawed waste management permit (WMP) that allows the Canadian exploration company to discharge wastewater into the ground at the base of the Saksaia Glacier near Glacier Creek, which feeds the Klehini and Chilkat rivers. The permit enables the company to dig a mile-long tunnel beneath the glacier into the side of the mountain. Blasting and excavation work could result in discharging over 740,000 gallons of wastewater a day into the ground near Glacier Creek.
The appeal argues that the waste management permit was unlawful because DEC must require a more protective Alaska Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (APDES) permit under the federal Clean Water Act, as the discharge will likely end up in creeks and rivers. An APDES permit would require more protective standards for discharged wastewater and would offer more opportunity for public input. This type of permit is required when discharging to surface waters — even if the discharge begins underground, as would be the case if Constantine is allowed to proceed as planned.
The appeal additionally argues that DEC was required to issue a new public notice and undertake a new comment process before approving an amended permit application that significantly revised and increased the capacity of the discharge system covered by the waste management permit.
“Science and history both show that sulfide mines inevitably contaminate downstream waters, and this appeal is just one example of the strong, widespread opposition to the Palmer Project,” said Jessica Plachta, executive director of Haines-based Lynn Canal Conservation. “American Pacific Mining and DOWA Holdings, take note: You do not have social license to operate a mine in the Chilkat Valley.”
DOWA Holdings is a Japanese smelter company that owns the majority stake in the Palmer Project Joint Venture.
“The State of Alaska’s handling of this mine exploration project has consistently been reckless and detrimental to the public’s trust that the Department of Environmental Conservation is doing their job,” said Aaron Brakel, SEACC’s Inside Passage Waters Program Manager. “The DEC has an obligation to respect and follow both the Clean Water Act and Alaska’s own policies and water quality standards when providing oversight of new mine developments — an obligation it has repeatedly not met, which is why we’re joining our partners in bringing this legal challenge today.”
“The DEC Commissioner was correct in ruling that the agency had violated its own rules in setting water quality standards for this permit,” said Derek Poinsette, Takshanuk Watershed Council’s Executive Director. “Those original standards would have allowed pollution of Glacier Creek far above natural conditions. These new water quality standards will be more protective of the pristine waters in the area, and their development will include a public process. We want to stand with the DEC in defending against the mining company’s attempt to overturn a good regulatory decision that is protective of the environment and human health.”
This latest appeal of the waste management permit for exploratory drilling at the Palmer Project follows a four-year effort that began in 2019 to obtain adequate protections for the Chilkat Valley’s fish and wildlife from the proposed discharge.
DEC awarded a partial win to the appellants in its August 15, 2023 decision, determining that the waste management permit broke the agency’s own rules by failing to require discharged wastewater to meet state water quality standards. The permit remains in effect, but Constantine has nevertheless appealed DEC’s decision to require compliance with its own standards and seeks to proceed with no additional analysis of the water quality and conditions near the project site.
Organizations in the Chilkat Valley and across Alaska have called for a transparent public process on this permit and an assessment of the risks of mining to the pristine lands and waters of the Chilkat Valley. The Palmer Project would mine massive sulfide ore, creating the serious and long-term risk of acid mine drainage and heavy metals contamination of these healthy and productive waters. Meanwhile, local residents have voiced strong support for protecting the Chilkat Watershed from the Palmer Project. Over 150 Klukwan and Haines residents braved lashing rain on October 5 to attend a water blessing and rally in support of the Klehini and Chilkat rivers organized by Chilkat Lingít cultural leaders. The Chilkat Valley comprises Chilkat Indian Village (Klukwan) traditional lands and waters and has provided for its people since time immemorial, with 90% of the people in Haines and Klukwan dependent on Chilkat fish for food and cultural practices.
The watershed is home to five species of wild Pacific salmon and the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, which attracts nearly 4,000 bald eagles each fall — the largest gathering of bald eagles on earth. Gravels within the Chilkat River watershed provide critical spawning habitat for millions of salmon. Mining in the headwaters of this watershed would threaten the future of healthy salmon runs across Southeast Alaska.