In Polley's Wake, Downstream Alaska Fears BC's Mining Boom

Tag along with the fishermen whose livelihood depends on watersheds that cross borders.

By Christopher Pollon 1 Nov 2014 |

Christopher Pollon is a Vancouver writer and Tyee contributing editor. He tweets @C_Pollon and can be reached at

Alaska travel for this story was supported by a grant from Trout Unlimited.

Roaring at seven knots up the U.S. side of the Stikine River, a grizzly bear of a man named Mark Galla steers our jet boat through a gauntlet of protruding logs, attempting to point out the exact point at which Alaska becomes British Columbia. Against the vastness of the surrounding wilderness, the border is invisible, almost arbitrary. Until recently, most Alaskans couldn't see it either.

That all changed in August when YouTube video highlights of the Mount Polley mine disaster circulated through panhandle towns like Ketchikan, Petersburg and Wrangell. Media from across the state drew comparisons between Mount Polley and the tailings dams that could one day accompany the half-dozen open pit mines proposed in the wild river watersheds that Alaska and B.C. share -- the Unuk, Taku and, more than anywhere else, the Stikine.

The first of these proposed mines will be Red Chris, a copper and gold mine built by Mount Polley-owner Imperial Metals in the B.C. headwaters of the Stikine, scheduled to open later this year. Another is the $5.3 billion Kerr-Suphurets-Mitchell (KSM) project, which could generate two billion tons of waste rock, requiring tailings storage in the Nass River drainage and waste rock dumps in the Unuk watershed.

The grand enabler of these projects is a taxpayer-subsidized power line completed this year, which will bring cheap, rock-grinding electricity to the B.C.-Alaska border region for the first time. With the price tag of about $750 million (BC Hydro's original estimate was $404 million) comes the electricity required for at least five new northwest mines.

Roused by the Mount Polley accident, a coalition of Alaskan commercial fishermen, First Nations and politicians on August 21 called on the U.S. State Department to pressure Canada for greater environmental scrutiny of the KSM mine.

In a separate letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Alaska Democratic Senator Mark Begich warned that an accident similar to the Mount Polley breach would imperil the economic future of southeast Alaska.

"A similar failure at mines proposed near the Unuk, Stikine and Taku rivers would be devastating to fish stocks which Alaska commercial and recreational fishermen depend on," Begich wrote on August 6, asking Kerry to press his Canadian counterparts for both a thorough investigation of the disaster and a stronger environmental assessment of KSM.

The Alaskan reaction underscores the precarious position of southeast Alaska today. Its forestry industry has gone bust and about 7,000 people now depend on salmon fishing for income. Alaska Panhandle salmon and tourism industries -- worth about $630 million together in 2013, according to Begich -- could soon be downstream from multiple metal mines each with permanent tailings impoundments and waste rock dumps far larger than Mount Polley’s.

582px version of Chart

Industrial transformation delayed

The fishing town of Wrangell was my ideal Alaska base. Located just 12 kilometres south of the Stikine mouth, it's the closest U.S. community to the Stikine and it allowed me to trace the footsteps of the great essayist Edward Hoagland, whose exploration of the Stikine watershed in 1966 provides the context necessary to understand the resource scramble unfolding today.

In his classic book, Notes from the Century Before, Hoagland travelled up the Stikine via Wrangell on a mission to record the stories of the B.C. frontier before they were lost "in the confusion of helicopters and mineral promotions." As he explored, a highway was being punched through the headwaters of the Stikine's biggest tributary, and American mining giant, Kennecott, was staging an exploratory blitz to quantify the rich copper, gold and coal deposits of the Stikine watershed. Plans would soon emerge to build five mega dams on the Stikine and to connect the B.C. northwest to Alaska via the Yukon by rail. The former met fierce Tahltan resistance and died, the latter became one of Canada's greatest taxpayer-funded fiascos.

Born in New York City, Hoagland was astonished that a land so rich and temperate in climate had remained stuck in the 19th century -- an anomaly he attributed to "a fluke of geography and by the low-keyed Canadian temper."

Half a century later, the industrial transformation Hoagland thought imminent is only now taking form. The Stikine's vast mineral wealth has remained untapped because only cheap electricity makes it economical to separate low-purity ore from mountains of waste rock.

The energy problem is now solved, but formidable obstacles remain: The multi-billion dollar financing needed to build the rest of the proposed northwest mines is nearly impossible to come by in the current economic climate. It will remain a waiting game. But when conditions improve, taxpayer-subsidized grid power will be standing by.

Fishermen fear Mount Polley repeat

The last time Hoagland set eyes on Wrangell, it was a logging town busy liquidating what today is the Tongass National Forest. By the early 1990s, the party was over. Lower cost competition to the south shuttered the two sawmills in town, and Wrangell lost half of its population.

Making a living in Wrangell today typically involves salmon. For Mike Rugo, that means chasing "money fish" -- chinook and coho -- destined for high-end restaurants in Tokyo and Seattle. From the cozy kitchen of the Barby J, his 14-metre power troller, Rugo says he has made a four-decade career, including raising two sons, by catching fish that are dependent on watersheds where big B.C. mines are now proposed.

"Salmon returning to all of those rivers are critical to fisheries in southeast Alaska," he says of the Nass, Unuk and Stikine. "The Mount Polley breach is a good indication of what could happen again, only up here it will be six times bigger."

Catching big chinooks by hook and line is high art compared to the Alaska gillnetters and seiners who mine for low-valued chum and pinks, all which end up at Wrangell's Trident fish plant. The Seattle company runs 10 operations from the Aleutian Islands to Ketchikan. On the day I visit, the plant is working flat out to process more than 400,000 kilograms a day of mostly pinks. It's August and the fleet is fishing hard, offloading their catches at sea onto mobile refrigerator ships that cruise the fishing grounds from Juneau to Wrangell. A record 95 million pinks were caught by Alaska fishermen last year.

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Wrangell-based commercial salmon troller Mike Rugo with the two loves of his life: wife Barbara and the troller Barby J.

A curt, heavy-set Alabama native named Ray Keith walks me through the plant, which enables 248 seasonal jobs, although just 10 of those -- including Keith -- are local positions. The work is performed in 14-hour shifts by temporary foreign workers, a United Nations cast of migrant labourers housed in apartments behind a bar on Wrangell's main strip. I watch them removing and packaging roe from pink salmon for export to Japan. In another area, workers package fish oil, by far the plant's most lucrative product.

Most of the salmon here will be shipped to China, where it will be hand-filleted, ground into protein meal for fish cakes, packaged and shipped back to American big-box stores. Keith says it makes economic sense to ship the fish to Asia; deboning the fish by hand overseas saves 30 percent more meat than using machines to do the same job in Alaska.

Targeting the investors?

On the day I meet Tis Peterman, an activist for the Wrangell Cooperative Association, a federally recognized tribe of the Stikine River, she is adamant the Alaska-B.C. border does not exist. That's because Peterman's great grandmother, a Tahltan, was brought down to the mouth of the river from her birthplace far up the Stikine to marry a Tlingit chief in an arranged marriage. Historically, the Tlingits (based near the Stikine mouth) and the Tahltan mutually relied on the resources of the big river. But it was an uneasy relationship, with the dominant Tlingits controlling the lucrative trade with other native groups and later the Russians. Her great grandmother's adoption by the Tlingits was a gesture of Tahltan tribute to a powerful neighbour and designed to keep the peace.

Mining proposed in the watershed has revived contact between Tlingit and Tahltan activists, Peterman says. Tahltan representatives came to a transboundary river event last spring, and more cross-border activism is planned.

"As a group, our goal is to make investors uncomfortable about doing any of this mining," she declares, expressing sympathy for the Tahltan elders' blockade of the Red Chris mine in B.C. that had begun the week we talked. But when pressed on next steps, details are scant. She concedes the pace of advocacy is moving much too slowly for her taste.

Progress by the coalition of tribes, fishermen and elected representatives also appears to have stalled. Repeated calls and emails to Senator Begich in Washington DC and Alaska were ignored. In early October, Dale Kelly, executive director of the Alaska Trollers Association (a coalition member) representing more than 1,000 southeast Alaska fishermen, confirmed there had been no "direct response" from Kerry or the state department regarding next steps.

In late July, B.C. approved an environmental assessment certificate for the KSM mine, and a federal environmental approval is expected this fall.

In the meantime, that isn't stopping the coalition from taking their concerns to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the International Joint Commission, the state of Alaska and local governments, and Alaska's governor.

"We aren't against mining, but mining does not belong in all places, and certainly not huge-scale mines on top of valuable salmon resources that both of our nations share," Kelly says.  [Tyee]

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