JUNEAU — Concerns and frustration are growing on both sides of the border in response to Chieftain Metals’ closure in June of the water treatment plant at the Tulsequah Chief site. Some stakeholders are now urging Canadian agencies to investigate solutions to the acid mine drainage problem that are not dependent on the mining company or a developed mine project.
“The mine suffers from enormous technical, political and financial challenges,” said Chris Zimmer of Rivers Without Borders. “Relying on mining companies and a developed mine for cleanup has failed, and calls for a better cleanup plan are increasing. Now is the time to end this threat to clean water and salmon in the Taku River and find a permanent solution that is not dependent on a mine or mining company.
Stopping the legacy acid mine pollution of the Tulsequah and Taku Rivers was an important condition of Chieftain’s acquisition of the Tulsequah Chief mine from Redfern. The old mine is right on the Tulsequah River, just upstream of its confluence with the Taku River and the Alaska/BC border. The project was originally owned by Cominco which abandoned the operation in the 1950’s without conducting any site remediation. Redfern, and now Chieftain, have proposed to re-develop the mine. The Taku is Southeast Alaska’s number one wild salmon producer, and Alaskans have been raising concerns about the acid mine pollution for over a decade.
In a June 6, 2012 letter to Environment Canada, Chieftain reported its intent to close the Interim Water Treatment Plan (IWTP) due to financial and technical problems. Now that the company has closed the IWTP indefinitely, concerns have been raised about impacts on salmon and water quality by the Mayor of Juneau, the Alaska Trollers Association, Alaska Department of Natural Resources, Juneau Senator Dennis Egan and the Taku River Tlingit First Nation (TRTFN).
In a June 13 letter to Environment Canada, Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho wrote: “While Chieftain’s June 6, 2012 letter to Environment Canada references a number of options, it is unclear if these options are workable, when they would be implemented, and if Chieftain can raise funds sufficient to re-start the water treatment plant. In any event, it would seem prudent to explore what alternatives exist, not only to treat the acid mine drainage in the immediate term, but also to provide a permanent remedy that does not depend on Chieftain or a developed mine.”
“The state of Alaska wants to see it [the IWTP] come back on line as soon as possible. We are urging the company to work quickly.…The state isn’t happy until the mine is properly closed and reclaimed,” said Kyle Moselle of Alaska Department of Natural Resources to the Juneau Empire on July 20, 2012.
“We were led to believe the financing was secure…We spent a whole day, the task force, talking to the folks at Chieftain. We had assurance that their main focus was the treatment plant, that everything is hunky dory, but everything is not hunky dory,” said Senator Dennis Egan to the Juneau Empire on August 1, 2012.
In an August 6, 2012 letter to the Juneau legislative delegation, the Alaska Trollers Association wrote: “Chieftain Metals’ recent shut down of the water treatment plant at the Tulsequah Chief Mine is of great concern to fishermen, due to the increased potential for harm to salmon, critical habitat, and water quality.…it seems unlikely that Chieftain will reinitiate mine operations any time soon. Thus, it seems prudent to develop options to prevent mine drainage pollution, and to do so in a way that does not rely on the presence of a working mine.”
The TRTFN announced in July that it is pulling out of the provincial permitting process, noting concern about Chieftain’s breach of the Letter of Understanding with the TRTFN, its ability to marshal either the technical or financial resources to complete the project, and significant delays in release of the crucial feasibility study.
“Due to the serious concerns that have been raised with Chieftain’s recent conduct with respect to this project…TRTFN is pulling its technical teams from the provincial environmental review and permitting process,” wrote TRTFN Spokesperson John Ward in a July 16, 2012 letter to the B.C. government. “The evidence is mounting that the company simply does not have the financial wherewithal to bring this project into operation in a technically sound and reliable way.”
Redfern, and now Chieftain, adopted a position that water treatment was only a temporary measure and a permanent cleanup required the mine to be developed. As noted by mine reclamation expert Dr. Dave Chambers in an August 20 opinion piece in the Juneau Empire, an operating mine is not needed to halt the pollution.
“An operating mine trades one problem for new problems that are potentially far worse than the current acid mine drainage and is simply not necessary for site cleanup,” said Zimmer.
The closing of the Tulsequah Chief IWTP is part of a long track record of failure to stop acid mine drainage into the Taku River. The Mayor of Juneau, U.S. State and Interior departments, the Alaska congressional delegation, commercial fishing groups and then-Governor Sarah Palin raised concerns about ongoing acid mine drainage in 2009 and 2010 after Redfern entered bankruptcy receivership.
“Chieftain’s new plan is little more than a vague promise to re-start the IWTP once the company obtains full project financing. Given the history of the mine’s economic troubles, it seems unlikely that Chieftain will be able to convince investors the project is viable, so unless a solution is developed that doesn’t rely on Chieftain and the mine, the pollution will continue,” said Zimmer.