VICTORIA – The threat of a mining disaster similar to the tailings pond collapse of Mount Polley in central British Columbia has prompted the province and Alaska to sign an environmental protection pact.
Premier Christy Clark and Alaska Gov. Bill Walker signed a deal Wednesday that includes commitments to protect trans-boundary rivers, watersheds and fisheries after both sides expressed concerns about proposed mining projects.
The agreement comes after ongoing protests from U.S. politicians and aboriginal and environmental groups over B.C.’s aspirations to develop mines bordering Alaska, or near the Stikine, Taku and Unuk rivers that support the state’s fishery.
An independent, government-ordered report last January into the Mount Polley disaster concluded the spill was caused by an inadequately designed dam. It found the design didn’t account for drainage and erosion failures associated with glacial till beneath the pond, causing 24 million cubic metres of silt and water to stream into nearby lakes and rivers.
Alaska’s Lt.-Gov. Byron Mallott was dispatched to the mine site last spring after concerns were raised about proposals for mines with similar tailings facilities near the B.C.-Alaska border. Aboriginal and conservation groups from Alaska also visited the Mount Polley mine area.
B.C.’s Energy Minister Bill Bennett made two trips to Alaska in the past year to meet with political, industry and aboriginal officials aiming to alleviate worry about B.C.’s mining industry and environmental regulations.
“What this signifies is the willingness to work together, to spend some money, to share information and to collaborate,” said Bennett about the agreement.
“Our rivers flow into Alaska waters, so this is a very important threshold for the two jurisdictions to come together, shake hands and say, ‘OK, we’re going to be better neighbours in the future.'”
The agreement establishes plans for a bilateral working group on the protection of trans-boundary waters. B.C. and Alaska will also develop a joint water-quality monitoring program for trans-boundary waters, and ensure the data is made publicly available.
The agreement further establishes plans for a framework enabling government and scientists to be involved in each jurisdiction’s environmental assessment and permitting processes for projects, including mines.
But a coalition of aboriginal and conservation groups in Alaska said the agreement is not binding. Members of Salmon Beyond Borders argue it lacks details on measures to protect people and the environment from mining impacts.
“We wanted to see very specific commitments over the long term about maintenance and the stability of tailings dams,” said spokesman Chris Zimmer, from Juneau.
“We wanted to see some binding commitments here to get this stuff done, but all we see in this memorandum of understanding is basically a state and a province pledging to talk a bit more.”
Zimmer said the coalition also wants a mechanism for determining compensation of people living downstream, in the situation their livelihoods are damaged by mining development and pollution.
The coalition wants the issues to become part of international negotiations between the Canadian and U.S. governments.