By Rob Sanderson, Jr.
My grandmother who raised me taught me an important lesson — take care of the land and water, and it will take care of our present and future generations. I try to live by that principle every day. That’s why I’m speaking out about industrial developments happening near my home in Southeast Alaska. These developments are occurring across the border in Canada, but they have the potential to pollute Southeast Alaska rivers and harm our wild salmon.
There’s been a big push to open mines in northwest British Columbia. Over a dozen large mines are planned or in development in B.C. Five are located in salmon-producing watersheds that flow into Southeast Alaska. The B.C. and federal Canadian governments are aggressively promoting these regulations by relaxing environmental regulations and offering multimillion-dollar tax incentives to mining companies. I’m not against development. As a single father raising a teenage son, I understand the value of hard work to provide a better future for our children. As an Alaska Native and a fisherman, I know how critical our wild salmon are our culture, economy and future here in Southeast Alaska. I became aware of what’s happening in B.C. when Seabridge Gold showed up in Ketchikan in 2011. Seabridge held an open house to let residents know their plans to develop a massive gold and copper t mine in the headwaters of the Unuk River, one of Southeast Alaska’s largest king salmon producers and a traditional and customary river for hooligan fishing.
What they are envisioning really frightened me. Seabridge is in the process of seeking permits to develop what could be the world’s largest gold mine. The proposed Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell (KSM) mine is located about 50 miles northwest of Hyder. It sits in the Canadian headwaters the Unuk, upriver from Alaska’s Misty Fjords National Monument. The KSM project calls for three large open pits, an underground mine and enormous dumps for billions of tons of acid-generating waste rock, called tailings.
Acid mine drainage, and its potential to leach heavy metals into Alaska’s waters, worries me. This toxic brew results when sulfide-bearing rock is exposed to air and water during the mining process. Most ore at KSM is known to generate acid, and although the developers say they can build a mine that won’t release any, I have my doubts. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has found that mining has contaminated portions of over 40 percent of the watersheds in the western continental U.S.
KSM isn’t the only B.C. mine that threatens our region. Developers are planning three mines upriver from Wrangell in the Stikine River watershed. They’re called Galore Creek, Schaft Creek and Red Chris. All have the potential to pollute the Stikine, Southeast Alaska’s second-largest salmon producing river. Plans are in the works to reopen the Tulsequah Chief mine located in the Taku River watershed near Juneau. The Tulsequah Chief has been releasing acid mine drainage into the Taku since the mine closed in during the 1950s.
There is a lack of engagement by Alaska officials on this issue. We need our delegation in Congress to step up to the plate, listen to the growing concern among fishermen and tribal groups in Southeast, and get the U.S. State Department involved.
Even though these mines are located in Canada, this is our water, too. Several Southeast tribes including the Tlingit and Haida Central Council, Ketchikan Indian Community, Douglas Island Indian Association, Metlakatla Indian Community, City and Organized Village of Saxman, Organized Village of Kake, and a growing number of others are on record with statements of concern. It’s time for our voices to be heard in Washington, D.C.
Rob Sanderson, Jr.
About: Rob Sanderson, Jr. is the Second Vice President of the Tlingit and Haida Central Council.