In the wake of the Mount Polley Mine disaster, Southeast Alaskans looked forward to the British Columbia Minister of Mines’ visit to Alaska. Area residents hoped to discuss concerns with Minister Bill Bennett directly, namely BC’s proposed open pit mines in Southeast Alaska’s most productive salmon watersheds: the Unuk, Stikine, and Taku.
Unfortunately, Mr. Bennett bypassed our region entirely. Instead, he travelled to Anchorage (roughly 1,000 kilometers away) to “ease Alaskan concerns” with corporate executives at the Alaska Miners Association. Avoiding downstream Southeast Alaskan tribes, municipalities, and fishing groups, Mr. Bennett used his time in Alaska to criticize the Bristol Bay Forever ballot measure to a room full of mining advocates.
Bristol Bay Forever, also known as Ballot Measure 4 in last week’s mid-term election, is a movement to protect the food and livelihoods of Southwest Alaska, led by the locals who live there. That measure received roughly 65 percent support throughout the state last week, receiving two Alaskan votes in favor for every one Alaskan vote that opposed it. The returns spoke loud and clear: Alaskans chose salmon as an Alaskan priority.
In Anchorage, Mr. Bennett called the Mount Polley Mine disaster – by some estimates the largest environmental disaster in Canadian history - “ugly” and said that it “should not have happened,” but that its impacts are “negligible.” In statements made earlier this fall, Bennett compared the disaster—which released an estimated 5 million cubic meters of toxic mine tailings into the Fraser River watershed—to “normal winter avalanches.” Lacking drinkable water and with sockeye returns in doubt, residents and fishermen of the Mount Polley region tend to disagree.
Bennett’s visit to Anchorage is exactly why Southeast Alaskans are nervous about mining in British Columbia.
The British Columbian Minister of Mines had an opportunity to listen thoughtfully to the people living downstream of BC’s large scale mining ventures. He could have sat with tribal leaders, fishermen and fishing leaders, communities and municipal leaders; hosted a town hall meeting; or participated in a TV or radio panel. He could have considered the on-the-ground concerns of those who will be impacted should anything go wrong in our most ecologically and economically sacred watersheds.
This sort of visit, and the attitude it conveys, does nothing to build our trust. Rather, Bennett’s visit left Alaskans with the impression that mining corporations trump local people, tribes, fishing groups, and municipal governments. Mr. Bennett’s assurances to Alaskans that “everything will be fine; you can trust us” are sounding fairly hollow.
For all of us in Southeast Alaska, now is the time to get involved. Mr. Bennett’s recent snub of Southeast is only the latest example of how British Columbia is not adequately listening to Alaska’s legitimate concerns. Thousands of Alaskans have already spoken, including the city governments of Sitka, Petersburg, Wrangell, Ketchikan, and Port Alexander, as well as the tribal governments of Craig, Klawock, Hydaburg, Ketchikan, Kake, Douglas, and Central Council.
To add your voice to the growing, grassroots movement to protect the heartbeat of Southeast Alaska—wild Alaska salmon—contact the US State Department and request their involvement. Ask them to refer the transboundary mine issue to the International Joint Commission, where all activities and their corresponding impacts will be analyzed on both sides of the border, not just one. You can do so here: bit.ly/AKCleanWater