Wild Canada: The New Fight For BC's Rivers, Part 3

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 1, and here for Part 2.

In Canada, both the federal and B.C. governments have rarely said "no" to a proposed mine—a history not that different from the U.S., where the 1872 General Mining Act still gives miners nearly free rein on hundreds of millions of acres of U.S. federal land.

The Harper administration's regulatory rollbacks effectively offload much of a project's evaluation to B.C.'s environmental assessment office. But B.C.'s oversight has also been eroded by policy changes and political tinkering, including a requirement that the office's decisions be consistent with the policies of the government in power. The B.C. government also eliminated all regional mine reclamation inspectors in 2003, leaving just one staffer in the provincial capital. Today, there are three for the entire province.

"Adequate monitoring is not occurring and follow-up evaluations are not being conducted," concluded B.C.'s Auditor General, a government watchdog, in July 2011, referring to oversight of whether companies actually carry out commitments they made to get government environmental approval.

Alaska and the U.S. federal government are also not providing much oversight, even though many of the projects would affect rivers shared by both countries. Under the architecture of the laws in both countries, state and U.S. governments have no binding role in permitting the B.C. projects. They're merely invited to participate in environmental assessments of B.C. mines by the provincial Ministry of Environment. And recent staffing "shortfalls" have forced the U.S. Department of the Interior to withdraw from assessments of both the Red Chris and Schaft Creek mines in the Stikine watershed. Once U.S. agencies withdraw, they risk losing the legal leverage to file court actions over pollution from B.C. mines.

The possibility of legally challenging B.C. mines in U.S. courts is demonstrated by an ongoing case in Washington state, where the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation and Washington's government have sued a Canadian mining company for century-long releases of pollution from a B.C. smelter into the Columbia River, which flows into Washington. On Dec. 14, federal judge Lonny Suko in Yakima, Wash. ruled that the Canadian company, Teck Resources Ltd., is liable under U.S. law for the costs of cleaning up the pollution on the U.S. side of the border, which could run as high as $1 billion (the costs are not yet determined).

"If you pollute in B.C. and it pollutes the Alaska side, you could be financially liable for that—the potential cost could be huge," says Tadzio Richards, a researcher and campaigner for Rivers Without Borders, a group based in Washington that focuses on transboundary river issues. But Southeast Alaska Conservation Council's Archibald says, "Legally, you do not have standing in court to bring an action (against the B.C. mines) if you did not raise the specific concern during the initial process" when B.C. agencies are evaluating the mine proposals.

Another barrier to protecting Alaskan rivers through litigation, says Archibald, is that there are currently no "scientifically defensible" baseline water quality studies for the Taku, Unuk and Stikine rivers. Such studies would measure existing levels of trace metals like lead, copper and arsenic, as well as alkalinity, acidity and turbidity. Without that information, it will be impossible for Alaska and U.S. agencies to act if B.C. mines pollute those rivers. "Even if a toxic chemical was released and detected, the state or nation would be unable to prove it was attributable to the mining and not a natural occurrence, because we have no idea what the natural conditions of these rivers are," Archibald says.

"Additional testing is desirable," agrees Jackie Timothy, southeast regional supervisor for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's Division of Habitat. "Funding and access are some of the challenges."

Some environmentalists and Alaska tribal leaders hope that an obscure international treaty might provide leverage. Last March, the Tlingit-Haida Central Council passed a resolution calling for Alaska and the U.S. State Department to "require that the Transboundary Waters Treaty of 1909 be followed in all aspects pertaining to mining projects along the Alaskan-Canadian border." The Ketchikan Indian Community has passed a similar resolution.

The 1909 treaty mandates that neither country should generate water pollution that causes injury to health or property in its neighbor. But both the U.S. and Canadian federal governments would need to step forward, agree that a problem needs to be addressed, and open themselves to criticism and scrutiny for their handling of the region's resource development. That seems unlikely, particularly on the Canadian side.

And the prospect of a B.C. mining rush has drawn little attention outside the region. The National Geographic Society, headquartered in Washington, D.C., is among the few who are highlighting it. Two of its scientists—Wade Davis and J. Michael Fay—live seasonally in the region, and have emerged as advocates for a slower pace of resource development. Davis invited photographers from the D.C.-based International League of Conservation Photographers to come to the Stikine watershed to document the region before the boom. Their images were published in Davis' 2011 book, Sacred Headwaters: The Fight to Save the Stikine, Skeena, and Nass. (Some also are published here.)

Last summer, Fay scouted the route for his "Megatransect" expedition, taking photos from his two-seater float plane. The expedition would be fashioned after Fay's late-1990s Megatransect, in which he trekked across 2,000 miles of central Africa with backing from the Wildlife Conservation Society, recording the wonders there. That effort helped persuade Gabon's president, Omar Bongo—a supporter of the oil and timber industries—to designate 13 new national parks encompassing more than 10,000 square miles. Bongo died in 2009 amid allegations of corruption, and those parks are plagued by problems including wildlife poaching, but they're still considered a landmark in global conservation, providing habitat for gorillas, elephants and other wildlife.

Fay plans to begin his Megatransect of B.C. this year: a two-year-long walk from near the Alberta tar sands across to the coast. He'll rely on periodic aerial food drops for sustenance, and acknowledges that he'll be forced to wait out the worst parts of the Northern winter. He warns that any existing parks and protected areas in northwestern B.C., and any new ones that are designated in the future, might not be able to protect transboundary rivers from the kind of pollution mines can generate. Even if 99.9 percent of a watershed is protected, he says, a single mine on a tiny piece of land could still have huge impacts on a salmon river. And the way things look now, there's no one like Gabon's former president with the power and will to moderate the B.C. mining rush.

This story first appeared in High Country News.