The Taku River, southeast Alaska's greatest sockeye salmon stream, runs at the base of Taku Glacier southeast of Juneau.
Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series about how the Mount Polley mine dam disaster could have devastating impacts on salmon in Alaska if proposed mines are allowed to be constructed in important salmon watersheds. You can read the first installment here.
By Mark Kaelke
In an eerie possible prequel to what could happen in southeast Alaska if a vast mining district in western British Columbia picks up momentum in the coming months, a massive mine tailings dam on BC’s fabled Fraser River failed last week, sending millions of gallons of toxic water and tainted mine waste on a collision course with an estimated 23 million sockeye salmon beginning to make their way upstream.
It was to be the best sockeye run on the Fraser in years.
The Mount Polley Mine, owned by Imperial Metals, is located near the town of Quesnel, B.C., and has been in operation intermittently since 1997. The earthen tailings dam was located on Hazeltine Creek, a tributary to Quesnel Lake and the Cariboo River which flows to the Fraser.
This disaster, and what it will mean for fish and fishermen in the affected area, is astounding. But when you stop and consider tailings dams just like it are in operation or proposed throughout the western half of North America, you realize the scope and scale of the environmental catastrophe that lies in wait for fish, fisheries and clean water. It is simply staggering.
In fact, the company that designed the dam that failed in B.C. has been tapped by Pebble Mine owner Northern Dynasty to design a much wider and higher series of dams for the proposed Pebble Mine. In Northern Dynasty’s submission to Environmental Protection Agency on the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment, Mount Polley dam designer Knight-Piesold said, "Modern dam design technologies are based on proven scientific/engineering principles and there is no basis for asserting that they will not stand the test of time.”
The dam below the Mount Polley Mine lasted 17 years, give or take. And it’s a fraction of the size of the dam complex proposed for Pebble.
But, Pebble Mine and its potential impact on the world’s largest sockeye salmon producing watershed of Bristol Bay is just one concern. More immediately, commercial fishermen in Alaska are looking at a complex of mines very similar to Mount Polley that are proposed—some have been granted preliminary approval—for western B.C. in waters that drain into Alaska.
Of particular concern to fishermen in southeast Alaska are five mines proposed or beginning operations on the transboundary Unuk, Stikine and Taku Rivers. These rivers begin in B.C. and flow into estuaries in Alaska and represent three of the four largest king salmon producers in the region. They are home to some of the largest steelhead runs in all of Alaska, home to trophy Dolly Varden and sea-run cutthroat trout, and are some of the last places on the continent where bull trout are found.
On top of their amazing fishery values, these watersheds are the very essence of wilderness and are some of the last undeveloped, fully functioning ecosystems left on the planet. One of the mines in question, Red Chris near the town of Iskut, is owned by Imperial Metals--the same company that owns Mount Polley.
Metal is integral to the pursuit of our sport. We drive cars and boats containing an array of it to our favorite fishing spots. We use metal hooks and reels machined from blocks of aluminum, so we, like most of humanity are metal-dependent. But, like the rest of humanity we need to realize metal comes at a cost far greater than the price we pay for it. We have to get vocal about where mining takes place and do our utmost to stop mining operations in areas like Bristol Bay and northern B.C. that are critical to fish and the existing jobs they support. We also have to call for the highest standards possible in the operation and maintenance of mining operations when they do occur.
Would doing all of that have prevented the tragedy unfolding on the Fraser right now? The answer is likely an emphatic yes. The Mount Polley mine had been issued five notices of substandard operating practices since 2012, and the inspection frequency for the mine was much lower than it was a decade ago. More information about Imperial’s shady business practices are coming to light by the day.
It’s unfortunate that it takes dead fish floating around in back-eddies, the closure of community drinking water supplies and millions of gallons of toxic sludge coursing down river systems to prod us to a new vigilance about protecting our fish and waterways, but that’s exactly what we have here and exactly what we need to avoid in the future.
Help us prevent the next big disaster. Comment on the proposed KSM mine on the Unuk River, and help us ensure that, if the mine is constructed, it’s constructed with the highest degree of engineering integrity possible. And reach out to the U.S. State Department--we must urge Secretary Kerry to engage with the Canadian government to ensure mining in British Columbia doesn't trash Southeast Alaska's $1 billion-a-year fishing-based economy.
Alaska's existing gold mine--its salmon, trout and char--will pay dividends for generations to come, if we take care of the habitat they need to spawn and grow. Putting fish habitat at risk behind fragile, poorly designed dams in perpetuity for short-term gain is not acceptable.
Mark Kaelke is the director of TU's Southeast Alaska work on the Tongass National Forest.