Hanes, AK Deishú/Lḵóot and Jilḵáat Kwáan
In a final agency decision issued last Friday on an administrative appeal, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) upheld a flawed waste management permit for exploratory drilling at the Palmer Project mine in Southeast Alaska while also determining that more work must be done to ensure Alaska’s water quality standards are not exceeded due to wastewater from the mining project.
The DEC ruling, issued last week, is the final agency decision on the portions of the request that DEC denied. Any further legal challenges to the permit would need to be filed in State Superior Court. Appellants are currently weighing next steps.
In the part of the ruling considered a victory for appellants, DEC concluded that the agency’s Water Division failed to follow the law in setting higher pollution limits based on the supposed natural conditions of nearby waters. The permit was remanded for a more thorough look at the region’s background water quality before discharge can begin.
DEC’s ruling stated that the agency’s Water Division must follow its own Guidance for the Implementation of Natural Condition-Based Water Quality Standards to evaluate natural conditions in the nearby waters. Water pollution limits may not be set higher than state standards unless DEC determines, in accordance with that guidance and after public notice and comment, that the waters naturally exceed those limits. Limits may not be raised for exceedances caused by previous human activity, such as mining.
The proposed exploratory drilling allowed by the permit would take place at the base of the Saksaia Glacier, which feeds the Chilkat and Klehini rivers. The permit allows the mining company to dig a mile-long underground tunnel beneath the glacier into the side of the mountain. Blasting and excavation for the tunnel could emit over 740,000 gallons of wastewater a day into the ground near Glacier Creek, a tributary of the Kleheni and Chilkat rivers.
“DEC still has not adequately considered environmental hazards in upholding this waste management permit. This permit should protect the rivers and downstream communities regardless of the weather,” said Jessica Plachta of Lynn Canal Conservation. “We’re encouraged to know that the public will now have additional opportunities to discuss and review decisions affecting Chilkat water quality and salmon but DEC needs to do more to protect this precious area, including requiring a more stringent permit under the Clean Water Act.”
“The Chilkat River watershed is critically important for the health and well-being and continued existence of Indigenous people and many other Alaskans, and for the continued preservation of salmon and other fish and wildlife,” said Derek Poinsette of the Takshanuk Watershed Council. “This beautiful and productive watershed deserves nothing less than the absolute best science and the highest level of environmental safeguards that we can provide. We’re encouraged that DEC will be required to show its work evaluating existing water quality in the region so we can accurately understand the impacts of any future mining activity.”
“The Chilkat River’s coho salmon run is one the largest in southeast Alaska,” said Shannon Donahue of Rivers Without Borders. “It’s also one of the latest salmon runs extending into winter that helps support the largest seasonal concentration of Bald Eagles in the world to the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. The proposed Palmer Project mine is one of the reasons the Chilkat and Klehini rivers made this year’s American Rivers top ten list of endangered rivers. We will continue to do whatever we can to safeguard these critical water bodies within the Chilkat River watershed.”
“We appreciate the Department of Environmental Conservation’s decision that the Water Division failed to follow the law regarding water quality and pollution risks,” said Aaron Brakel, Water Program Manager for the Southeast Alaska Conservation, “but under the current decision we still do not have adequate assurances that contaminated water from mine exploration will not end up polluting public waters and reaching downstream communities like Klukwan. DEC’s failure to require a Clean Water Act permit compounds our concerns about transparent and effective public process — this tunnel has already been shifted from federal to state land to avoid more rigorous environmental review, and as long as DEC continues to minimize the risks of the Palmer Project to nearby rivers and streams, we will continue to push the public process to ensure those risks are properly taken into account.”
“Many in the Chilkat Valley live a traditional subsistence way of life that relies on clean water and continued protection of the area’s abundant salmon, birds, and wildlife,” said David Krause, Interim Executive Director at Audubon Alaska. “The approval of this wastewater discharge permit endangers the health of what is arguably the most biologically diverse watershed in Alaska and is a serious threat to Indigenous Alaskans and everyone who relies on the tourism and commercial fishing the Chilkat Valley’s pristine waters support. At least DEC will now be following its own guidance to ensure water quality is better understood in the region to safeguard against pollution from proposed mining activities.
“This was a mixed ruling but a partial win for our clients,” said Earthjustice attorney Erin Colón who represented Chilkat Indian Village (Klukwan) and five conservation groups in the appeal. “We will continue to argue that this discharge requires a more stringent Clean Water Act permit, but we’re heartened DEC will now have to take a harder look at the natural water quality of these critical waters to better safeguard against degradation from mineral exploration.”
The conservation groups that joined Chilkat Indian Village (Klukwan) in the administrative appeal of the waste management permit are Audubon Alaska, Lynn Canal Conservation, Rivers Without Borders, Southeast Alaska Conservation Council and the Takshanuk Water Council. They were represented by Earthjustice.
This latest appeal of the waste management permit for exploratory drilling at the Palmer Project mine 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.
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 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.