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Showdown on the Taku River

A cross-border fight over a mining project is coming to a head. American and Tlingit officials accuse Canada of lax environmental standards.

Scott Deveau 17 Nov
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The Tulsequah Chief mine and road project in northwestern B.C. has long been contentious. It has driven a wedge between the Tlingit First Nation and senior levels of government, stressed U.S.-Canada relations and prompted allegations that the provincial government has been "double dealing."

A critical Supreme Court decision on the Tlingit's rights to the land is expected this Thursday, but American opposition to the project continues to boil. A front page story in last week's Juneau Empire reported that Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans refused the Juneau mayor's invitation to participate in a public forum in Alaska to address concerns about the project.

Senior U.S. politicians say the Chief project is just one more example of the Canadians not respecting their downstream U.S. neighbours.

To develop the Tulsequah Chief project, which the B.C. NDP government approved in principle in 1998, Redfern Resources Ltd. plans to carve a 160-km road from Atlin to Tulsequah, through pristine forest in the Taku River watershed. Redfern says the multi-metal mine will generate $1.5 billion in revenue and create 260 jobs in the region.

Canada stymies dispute process

The Taku crosses the Alaska panhandle and reaches the ocean near Juneau. The 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty between the U.S. and Canada was created to prevent contamination of transboundary waterways and address concerns like the ones being raised by the Chief mine proposal. Yet while thousands of boundary treaty disputes have been adjudicated by the International Joint Commission, both countries must agree to that process and Canada has refused to do so for the Chief.

An environmental consultant exacerbated U.S. concerns in late October when he argued there are flaws in the environmental assessment of the Chief proposal. Alaskan officials are now concerned Canadian environmental standards and procedures are inadequate and that the Taku's $7.4 million commercial and sport salmon fishery will be damaged by the road and the mine.

B.C.'s environmental standards have recently raised other concerns across the border. Montanans are worried about B.C.'s drilling for coal-bed methane in the Flathead River Basin. And a lead and zinc smelter in Trail has already contaminated the Columbia River and deposited waste in Washington State's Lake Roosevelt.

The Tlingit First Nation is awaiting a Supreme Court of Canada decision this week in which the Chief figures prominently. The debate is over whether senior levels of government and industry should be allowed to develop land that is subject to treaty negotiations without proper consultation with First Nations.

Some Tlingit worry the road will not only damage salmon stocks but will also disrupt the migration of an at-risk sub-species of caribou that the Tlingit rely on for sustenance, said John Ward, spokesperson for the Tlingit First Nation.

However, not all the Tlingit are opposed to the mine. Gilbert Quock, a Tlingit band member who has been working as a liaison with the project developers, said that about 70 per cent of the band supports the project and the jobs it would bring.

Ward said there is no guarantee those jobs will go to Tlingit band members.

Both Attorney General Geoff Plant and Minister of State for Mining Pat Bell refused to comment on the project until the Supreme Court's decision Thursday.

Mine was approved twice

However, Redfern Resources president Terrance Chandler said that since the project was first scouted in 1982, Redfern has mitigated every concern that has been raised and met every published environmental standard. As well, Chandler said, the Tlingit were consulted throughout the process. "I don't think there is a project in B.C. that has gone through as much as we've had to do to demonstrate the project won't have an impact," Chandler said.

In 2000, the B.C. Supreme Court quashed the provincial government's original approval for the project and ordered further consultation with the Tlingit First Nation.

Redfern met with the Tlingit while the case was before the B.C. Court of Appeals. The 18-month consultation process was "without bearing" and would likely still be going on today if it had not been halted by the courts, Chandler said.

In January 2002, the B.C. Court of Appeal upheld the B.C. Supreme Court's decision. The court said the provincial government must consult with Tlingit and forced Redfern to undergo a reapproval process.

Redfern and the provincial government then appealed the decision to the Supreme Court of Canada.

One process too many

In June 2002, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans sent Redfern a list of more than 100 environmental concerns, but Chandler said he did not respond to them because many of the concerns were being addressed during the provincial approval process.

Chandler said the Tlingit's Supreme Court appeal won't affect the Chief project, because Redfern received provincial reapproval in December 2002. However, he said he is still awaiting permits from the DFO, which is expected to release its screening report for public consultation by the end of November.

A mine at the site of the Tulsequah Chief operated for seven years in the 1950s. There is currently surface leeching on the site, which is draining into the Taku River.

The DFO has ordered that the site be cleaned up, but Chandler said he is unable to do so until a road is built because the only way to get materials to the site is by helicopter, which is too expensive. Redfern has already spent more than $35 million to get the mine approved, and even without the clean-up the area is still "pristine," he said.

In the 1950s, equipment and supplies were barged to the site from Juneau and partially refined mineral concentrate was shipped out the same way. Chandler said receding glaciers have lowered water levels, and that while Redfern has nevertheless barged some equipment to the site, the only local barge operator recently died.

By industry standards, the mine is relatively small with a lifespan of only nine years, Chandler admits. But the road opens up the possibility of further mining projects in the area, including Redfern's Big Bull claim.

Province 'not being honest'

There are also concerns that the road will open the area to forestry, according to Chris Zimmer, U.S. representative on the Transboundary Watershed Alliance, a non-profit U.S.-Canadian watershed protection agency.

"We had been told by the province that the road would be closed after the Tulsequah Chief was done so as to minimize environmental effects," Zimmer said, accusing B.C. of "double dealing." At the same time, the B.C. government was promoting the value of the road to other mining companies, Zimmer said. As a result, two more properties were staked in the upper parts of watershed.

"B.C. clearly has major plans for the watershed, but they're not being honest about them," Zimmer said.

Zimmer also objected to Redfern characterizing the discharge from the mine as being as toxic as orange juice. "If you put a juvenile fish in orange juice, it can't live." Zimmer said his impression is that B.C. is devaluing wild salmon in favour of fish farms and industrial development.

Canadian rules 'weaker'

"There is certainly the opinion here that B.C. and Canadian environmental assessment law is quite a bit weaker than U.S. and Alaskan law," Zimmer said.

Unlike the process in the U.S., Zimmer said, Canada approves projects without first consulting all the stakeholders, he said. "Canadians deal with any problems as they come up. It's very difficult to stop a project once it's approved," Zimmer said.

The Transboundary Watershed Alliance hired Adam Lewis, a fisheries consultant at Ecofish Research Ltd., to review Redfern's environmental assessment.

Because of limited resources, Lewis said he examined just three areas along the proposed road where it "seemed likely that there would be some fish habitat." Although one of the sites was adequately assessed, the other two were assessed incorrectly, Lewis said.

At one site, Lewis found spawning salmon in a stream where a culvert is planned. He said Redfern hadn't "sampled" the stream to ensure appropriate mitigation of potential habitat damage.

At another site, Redfern proposed to divert a tributary upstream along the road. Lewis said it is not clear how the water would be returned to the creek and that Redfern did not consider the impact of the diversion.

He also said Redfern has ignored the cumulative sediment from the dozens of proposed bridges along the road.  The combined sediment from the project will make it more difficult for salmon, in particular Coho, to feed, Lewis said.

"The best way to deal with that is not to say 'Don't worry, we'll take care of it.' It's to go out there and demonstrate that you understand the problem, and that's what I think is lacking here," Lewis said.

Pete Christich, U.S.-Canada relations officer for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, echoed the concerns of Zimmer and Lewis. "There has been a lot of focus on the project's issues and less of a bi-national focus on the watershed," Christich said.

Senator 'talking to a pillow'

State Senator Kim Elton said Canadian officials have been unresponsive to the concerns of the Alaskan officials. "It's sometimes like talking to a pillow.  There just has been no response."

Twice he has sent letters to the several Canadian agencies and the Minister of Foreign Affairs Pierre Pettigrew. With the exception of the DFO's refusal to participate in a public forum, he has received no response from the Canadian government.

"If you look at any cross border issue, the downstream effects of upstream development are of special concern, and here we not only have environmental concerns but also procedural concerns by what appears to be a fast-track effort to a decision," Elton said.

Sue Farlinger, Pacific regional director for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, said Canada has not submitted the project to a review by the International Joint Commission because the DFO's process is a harmonized effort with the B.C. Environmental Assessment Act, which has no mandate to deal with international issues.

"There have been Americans involved in the process for years and there have been public meetings, not only in Canada but also in Alaskan cities, so to say the public in Alaska has not been a part of this is completely incorrect," Farlinger said.

The DFO is now finalizing its report, and both Alaskans and Canadians are invited to respond to it in writing, but there will be no public forums held on the project, she said.

"It's up to people who are interested to participate," Farlinger said.

Scott Deveau is a staff writer for The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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