OPINION: The abandoned Tulsequah Chief mine is a festering sore on Alaska’s Taku River

A New Polaris gold mine is in the review process by British Columbia, located very close to Tulsequah Chief mine - as it continues degrading the Taku watershed.

by | March 6, 2024

Filed Under Environment | Salmon

Abandoned Canadian mine has been discharging toxic waste water into the Taku River watershed for 70 years

[LW question: Where is the outcry over threatened Chinook populations by conservation groups such as the Wild Fish Conservancy? They were fast to file a lawsuit against Southeast AK trollers over their taking “too many Chinook” out of the mouths of resident orcas at Puget Sound. Crickets…]

The opinion piece below was written by Frank Rue, who served as Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game from 1995-2002. He lives in Juneau. i

Anchorage Daily News
March 5, 2024

It’s hard to believe that the abandoned Tulsequah Chief mine, just across the Alaska border in Canada, has been discharging toxic, acidic and metals-laden waste water into the Taku River watershed for almost 70 years. A kaleidoscope of Canadian excuses, corporate bankruptcies, and hollow promises have meant no meaningful, on-the-ground effort has been made to clean up this mess in Southeast Alaska’s top salmon-producing river system.

Alaskans have been pressing to have the Tulsequah Chief problem addressed for decades. As Alaska Fish and Game Habitat Director and then commissioner from 1988 until 2002, I was well aware of the Tulsequah Chief problem and involved in efforts to get it resolved. Gov. Tony Knowles petitioned the U.S. State Department to put the issue before the International Joint Commission, but the federal government would not take up the issue for us. But Alaskans, including the Douglas Indian Association, Alaska commercial and sport fishing organizations, local governments throughout the region, and conservation organizations have continued to press for cleanup of the Tulsequah Chief mine.

Finally, eight years ago, British Columbia committed to ending the pollution. While the provincial government deserves some credit for the procedural steps it has since taken toward making the cleanup happen, it’s time to quit just talking and get on with the on-the-ground work needed to finally stop the acid drainage and close and reclaim the Tulsequah Chief mine.

The imperative to clean up Tulsequah has become even greater with the proposed New Polaris gold mine now in the review process by British Columbia. New Polaris would be sited very close to Tulsequah Chief. It’s unconscionable that the province would be open to a new lower Taku mine getting developed, almost on Alaska’s doorstep, while the old mine continues degrading the Taku watershed.

From my perspective, Tulsequah Chief should be a cautionary tale for mining in the shared British Columbia–Alaska watersheds. Tulsequah Chief was just a small underground mine, a very modest project by today’s mega-mine standards. If its nearly seven-decade-old pollution problem still isn’t resolved, despite numerous high level cross-border calls for something to be done, and lots of feel-good meetings and memos, what are the odds the huge Canadian mine projects being proposed for the transboundary region will be developed, operated, and reclaimed in a way that protects Alaska’s interests?

It doesn’t have to be this way. In 1909 the United States and Canada signed the Boundary Waters Treaty to address water flow and water pollution and other cross the border resource issues. There have been successful agreements elsewhere between the two nations on contentious issues. Given the plethora of Canadian mines being proposed and permitted in the Taku, Stikine and Unuk watersheds, the stakes are high enough that the United States and Canada should engage the International Joint Commission to resolve issues such as water flow and water quality standards, tailing disposal, mine reclamation, bonding requirements, etc., to ensure that Canada’s assurances that it will protect downstream water quality and flow regimes are backed by enforceable policies. I urge our federal delegation, the governor and the Alaska Legislature to join communities and organizations of Southeast Alaska to protect Alaska’s interests as mines are developed in British Columbia. I think the International Joint Commission is the appropriate forum to ensure any mining in our shared watersheds safeguards water quality, respects Indigenous interests, and puts long-term sustainable stewardship ahead of short-term profit.

But foremost, as a gesture of good will and a demonstration of capability to get things done on the ground, the Tulsequah Chief mine needs — finally, after almost 70 years — to be properly reclaimed. The Taku deserves better. So do the Indigenous people with age-old ties to the watershed, the commercial, subsistence, sport and all the stakeholders and communities who look to the Taku as an economically vital, life-giving natural resource.

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About Laine

Laine Welch has covered the Alaska fish beat for print and radio since 1988. She also has worked “behind the counter” at retail and wholesale seafood companies in Kodiak and on Cape Cod.


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