Wild Canada: The New Fight For BC's Rivers, Part 1

Editor's Note: This is the first part of a three-part story on a mining rush in the pristine, resource-rich backcountry of northwestern British Columbia. While the mines promise thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in tax revenue to local governments and native tribes, they also threaten environmental degradation on an unprecedented scale. Important salmon, grizzly bear, wolf and moose habitat is in the crosshairs. Click here for Part 2, and here for Part 3.

Last summer, John Grace, one of the world's elite kayakers, traveled more than 3,000 miles from his North Carolina home into the wild northwest corner of British Columbia, to explore the Iskut River. It's the biggest tributary of the Stikine River, which flows all the way to the Alaska panhandle coast, and together they're the kind of big, untamed salmon-rich river system no longer found in the American West. On a sunny August day, deep in the backcountry, Grace and a few friends paddled toward the jaws of Iskut Canyon, hoping to reach a four-mile stretch of surging whitewater that no human had conquered before.

As they neared the canyon, the haunting silence of the rainforest closed in around them. Suddenly they found themselves in the midst of a vast construction camp. Workers were boring a tunnel into the mountain, part of a hydropower project to harness the great force of the river.

The work crew, employees of a private company, were equally surprised to see them, and the mood turned ugly: "They were complete cowboys," Grace recalled later. "They pulled up in a truck and told us to leave our stuff and come with them. They threatened to arrest us for trespassing."

The work crew detained the kayakers overnight, and then drove them about 30 miles to the nearest highway the next day. The legality of the crew's actions remains dubious. But the encounter clearly revealed the brash new Wild West of British Columbia—millions of acres of mostly undeveloped forests, mountains and rivers bordering the Alaskan panhandle, where only a few thousand people now live.

The $720 million Forrest Kerr hydropower project—a "run-of-the-river" design, which diverts the flow through pipes and turbines and then returns it to the river downstream—is merely the first in a series of large natural resource developments in northwestern B.C. At least a dozen major new mines and many new hydropower projects are proposed. Some developments are already advancing through the Canadian regulatory process, and a crucial electrical transmission line is being extended nearly 300 miles to serve them.

A separate scheme would install a pipeline hundreds of miles across northern B.C. to convey bitumen from the huge Alberta tar sands mines to an expanded port in Kitimat, B.C., currently home to about 8,500 residents. If it gets built, tanker ships would navigate the treacherous, ecologically fragile coastal waters to haul Canadian crude to hungry Asian markets.

Many Canadian politicians have lined up to back this rush to develop natural resources. The developments would be mostly on "crown lands" managed by the provincial government—Canada's equivalent of state land in the U.S. The provincial government, a mining cheerleader, says the developments will create 10,000 jobs and spur $15 billion in new investments. Meanwhile, the Canadian federal government, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, has unleashed an unprecedented assault on the country's environmental laws to expedite approval of these kinds of projects. Both governments are even subsidizing the new power line, using hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars.

There are some critics, mostly a few environmentalists and tribes in both B.C. and the U.S., who fear that the developments will degrade the region's wild character, harming ecosystems that support not only the salmon runs that Alaska and B.C. share, but also thousands of grizzly bears, wolves, moose and other large mammals. But so far, they're outgunned by the politicians and industry.

"We're at this transition point right now," warns J. Michael Fay, a biologist who lives part-time in a remote cabin near the Alaska-B.C. border. With backing from the National Geographic Society, Fay plans to hike across northern B.C. to the Alaska coast beginning next summer to document the area's biodiversity and some of the recent impacts upon it. In his view, the new mines, hydropower projects and power line will cause "a complete transformation of the landscape from wilderness to an industrial center. My hope is that public opinion develops to say this is all way too much, way too fast."

Different nations have developed specialties over the years: the Finns build ships, the Swiss run banks, and Canadians are world experts in separating minerals from mountains of ore. Greater Vancouver alone—the biggest city in B.C.—is home to at least 1,200 mining exploration companies, and the industry, going for gold, silver, copper and other metals as well as coal, is a major economic engine for the province, earning billions of dollars and paying almost $1 billion in taxes a year.

The industry's immense political power showed in September 2011, when B.C.'s top politician, Premier Christy Clark, unveiled her B.C. Jobs Plan, which called for eight new mines and the expansion of nine others by 2015. That announcement, combined with the power line's approval, made it clear that northwestern B.C. will be at the heart of the province's mining future.

Similar enthusiasm is being demonstrated at the federal level. Since Prime Minister Harper's Conservative Party won a majority of seats in Parliament in the spring of 2011, his administration has rewritten the law that historically prohibited the alteration and destruction of fish habitat. The revised law will protect only fish considered valuable to commercial, sport and Native fisheries, and offers no direct protection for habitat. A majority of Canada's freshwater fish, and up to 80 percent of the 71 species currently at risk of extinction, will likely lose federal protection.

The Harper administration also weakened the Navigable Waters Protection Act, which often required environmental assessments of developments affecting navigable rivers and streams. That law used to cover more than a million rivers and 32,000 lakes, but it now protects just 66 lakes and rivers. Some of northwestern B.C.'s key rivers—the Taku, the Unuk, the Nass, the Stikine and the Iskut—will no longer be protected.

Harper's administration repealed the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act—roughly equivalent to the U.S. National Environmental Policy Act—which required environmental assessments and impact statements. A new law imposes time limits on reviews and potentially limits public input and comment. Thousands of projects that would have undergone federal environmental scrutiny will no longer be assessed.

"They're removing barriers to permit the ramming through of major pipeline, oil and gas and mining projects," says Jessica Clogg, executive director of Vancouver's West Coast Environmental Law. "These changes essentially give big oil and mining companies what they have been asking for all along."

Many of northwestern B.C.'s mineral deposits are still untapped, largely because of their remoteness. The great American essayist Edward Hoagland wandered into the region in the 1960s and was amazed that a land so rich in resources appeared empty and undeveloped. He wrote that the region was "left in the 19th century by a fluke of geography and by the low-keyed Canadian temper."

A mining rush is feasible now for several reasons. The governments are subsidizing the construction of the transmission line—to the tune of more than $360 million—to provide the cheap electricity necessary to crush enormous volumes of low-grade ore. And because Harper's Conservative Party holds a majority of seats in Parliament, the party can pass any laws it wants, including regulatory rollbacks.

The projects that are furthest along in the regulatory queue include the Red Chris open-pit gold-copper mine, expected to be among the first powered by the new transmission line. It's located in the "Sacred Headwaters" area, where three of the Northwest's biggest salmon rivers—the Stikine, Nass and Skeena—begin flowing toward the coast. In the same region, an Ontario company plans to employ West Virginia-style mountaintop removal on Mount Klappan, to tap a large anthracite coal deposit. Nearby, Shell Canada wants to drill its coalbed methane leases. And at Schaft Creek, in the Stikine watershed, an Alberta-based mining company plans to develop a large copper-gold-molybdenum-silver mine, just upstream of Wrangell and Petersburg, Alaska.

The KSM Mine on B.C.'s stretch of Unuk River probably poses the biggest single threat to rivers and salmon. KSM's Toronto-based owner, Seabridge Gold, envisions up to four giant open pits, which will eventually consume three mountains believed to hold one of the world's largest deposits of copper and gold. Nearly 2 billion tons of tailings would be held behind two Hoover-sized dams. It's reminiscent of the Cold War era's fantastically ambitious development schemes, such as scientist Edward Teller's 1955 plan to use hydrogen bombs to create a new deep-sea Alaska port, or the so-called North American Water and Power Alliance, which planned to channel water from Alaska and Northern Canada to the Lower 48 and Mexico via a continent-long engineered Rocky Mountain trench.

These new projects would provide high-paying jobs in rural communities, including several that are populated largely by First Nations (Canada's term for the country's tribes). Some of the electricity would also allow at least one of these First Nations to retire its diesel generators. But the mass influx of young, well-paid workers with no cultural connection to the region is likely to cause social disruption. The projects will also require a new web of roads, with large trucks hauling the ore to ports, where it would be loaded on tankers headed to smelters and refineries in Asia. The overall increase in traffic—in a region so remote that wealthy trophy hunters, anglers and skiers often have to travel by helicopter and floatplane—is certain to impact the region's wildlife and its intact ecosystems. But the greatest concern is the risk of river pollution.

Discarded rock and tailings often contain sulfides; when those rocks are crushed and exposed to air and water, acid and heavy metals can be released into surface and groundwater. Such acid drainage is toxic to fish and aquatic ecosystems. It can begin decades after a mine has closed, and once it starts, it can set off a deadly chain reaction.

The industry downplays the risks and the history of pollution disasters around the world. Seabridge Gold has spent four years designing its KSM Mine, says company president Jay Layman. The rock storage and tailings facilities will be designed to withstand a 9.5 Richter scale earthquake, Layman adds, and "one of our waste-rock (dumps) will be double-lined with plastic, something you rarely see, so that there is no groundwater contamination." He notes that the company is required by law to post a bond, which he estimates would eventually total $600 million, to cover reclamation of the mine site and perpetual treatment of any runoff, if necessary.

But under B.C.'s regulatory system, negotiations over potential reclamation costs can be kept secret, and in many cases, reclamation bonds are inadequate. Seabridge Gold, which plans to break ground in 2014 and have the mine in production as early as 2019, probably won't even run the operation; it plans to eventually sell the mine to a bigger company. And no matter who runs the KSM Mine, structures like its earthen dams can't last forever, warns Guy Archibald, a chemist with mining experience who now works for the Juneau-based Southeast Alaska Conservation Council. "Mines like this turn into the equivalent of a nuclear waste repository, which has to be maintained forever. Otherwise, there's going to be a catastrophic failure at some point."

Click here for Part 2.

This story first appeared in High Country News.