Earlier this month, Heather Hardcastle, a commercial fisherwoman from Juneau, Alaska met in Williams Lake, B.C. with members of the Tsilhqot'in First Nation. They shared a meal of wild Alaskan salmon that Hardcastle brought as a symbolic gesture: This fish was a reminder of all there was to lose.
After lunch, Hardcastle and her team of Alaska visitors boarded a helicopter and flew 25 minutes away to the site of the Mount Polley accident, the scene of a massive breach last August of its mine waste dam near the town of Likely, B.C.
The breach released millions of cubic metres of contaminated water into Quesnel Lake, which feeds into the Fraser River.
Nine months later, Jacinda Mack, a Xatsull woman from the Soda Creek reserve and one of many residents living near the path of the spill, invited the Alaskans to Williams Lake to see firsthand the main effect of that accident.
On the Fraser River, contamination from the mine breach threatened the run of Sockeye salmon that spawns in Quesnel Lake.
"We saw where [Mack] was raised, and where they used to fish on the Fraser where people fished for thousands of years, and they're not fishing there anymore. It's heartbreaking," Hardcastle said. "It's a stunning and gorgeous area but it was just so sad. It feels selfish to be thinking about us and our water, but it lit a fire under me. We have to do something."
It was an eye-opening sight to Hardcastle, who lives and works in southeast Alaska, downstream from a number of open-pit mines located in northwest B.C., with more under construction and opening soon.
Hardcastle grew up in the 1970s, during which time her parents fought the B.C. Tulsequah Chief mine, located 65 kilometres north of Juneau, Alaska, which leaked acid mine drainage in 1957 and still hasn't been cleaned up. The polluted Tulsequah River empties into the salmon-rich Taku River.
Fear Polley repeat
It's been a "source of great angst in Juneau," Hardcastle said. She and the Alaskans came to Canada because they don't want to see another repeat of Tulsequah Chief or Mount Polley.
Fishermen are concerned about the potential threat of pollution from the rapidly growing number of northwestern B.C. mines proposed or under construction: the Red Chris mine, a copper and gold mine with a wet tailings storage facility similar to Mount Polley, and also owned by Imperial Metals, began operating in February. Brucejack mine, 40 kilometres from the Alaska border, is projected to open in 2017 and the large-scale Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell (KSM) project has been granted environmental approval from B.C.
The Alaskans came to Canada to meet with First Nations in the Mount Polley area, but also with provincial officials. They're looking for guarantees from the province that another Polley-sized accident won't occur with the mines set to open in northwestern B.C. If an accident does happen, they want assurances they will be compensated.
"How are you going to compensate us when something goes wrong?" Hardcastle asked. "Given the number of projects underway, it's only a matter of time."
Hardcastle is the head of an Alaskan salmon advocacy coalition, Salmon Beyond Borders, which campaigns for clean transboundary rivers. The group has gathered support from First Nations in Canada and United States, as well as politicians and local businesses.
A few days after their trip to Williams Lake, the group headed to Vancouver to meet representatives from the ministries of energy and mines, and environment, as well as the Environmental Assessment Office.
Yet the Alaskans left Canada disappointed. The group failed to gain assurances from Canada that Alaska rivers would be protected from pollution.
"The general attitude [from the B.C. representatives] was that everything was fine," Hardcastle said in a telephone interview from Juneau. She said the B.C. officials seemed bent on fast-tracking construction of the Red Chris mine.
The Alaskans' concern with B.C. mining practices has taken on new life since Mount Polley. Residents of southeast Alaska realized how much damage a tailings spill could cause if a similar accident occurred in northwest B.C., possibly polluting Alaska's lucrative fishing waters where salmon is a multi-billion dollar resource.
"There's a thriving seafood processing, fishing, and tourism industry that just could be wiped out," said Paula Dobbyn, communications director of Trout Unlimited Alaska, a conservation organization working with Salmon Beyond Borders.*
Lifeblood of community
For many coastal Alaskans, fishing runs in families, passed from generation to generation. Hardcastle operates a premium salmon company with her family. She described the fish as the lifeblood of the community. "We have to work for our grandchildren, and that comes down to salmon and water."
Salmon is also an important part of indigenous Alaskan heritage.
"We're dependent on a healthy, intact salmon habitat," said Jennifer Hanlon, a Tlingit woman from the United Tribal Transboundary Mining Work Group in Alaska, which is working closely with Salmon Beyond Borders. "If that's wiped out, we're going to be wiped out too. For us, it's beyond an environmental issue, it's a human rights issue."
Salmon Beyond Borders is trying to attract greater national attention to its campaign. Canada and the United States do have a treaty that requires both countries not to pollute shared waters and the Alaskans' next step could be to seek a study on the potential effects of the mines by the International Joint Commission, an organization created by the treaty. Two of the IJC's responsibilities include regulating the usage of water that is shared between the two countries, and investigating and advising the Canadian and U.S. governments on existing or potential transboundary issues.
*Story correction June 1 at 4 p.m. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the name of Paula Dobbyn's organization. It also incorrectly stated that Dobbyn joined Heather Hardcastle in Williams Lake.
Read more: BC Politics, Environment
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