PALMER PROJECT'S HEAVY METALS THREATEN THE CHILKAT RIVER IN SOUTHEAST ALASKA
ACWA leads the effort to stop Constantine Metal Resources the DOWA Metals and Minerals Corporation from polluting the waters that flow through Alaska's Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, the greatest gathering place for bald eagles on Earth.
The Chilkat River has stunning runs of five species of wild salmon. Every year hundreds of thousands of sockeye, coho, king, pink, and chum salmon return from the Pacific Ocean and make their way back to the Chilkat and its tributary streams where they were spawned years before. What makes the Chilkat salmon runs unique is the significant geothermal activity in the region — warm upwellings prevent parts of the river from freezing until late in the winter, long after other salmon streams in the region have been covered in ice. The late season runs therefore remain accessible to eagles and other fish-eaters until mid-winter, attracting thousands of bald eagles from Prince William Sound to the north, and from Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia to the south. There are so many eagles here in the fall that the Tlingits, who have lived in the Village of Klukwan for more than 1000 years, call the area the “Council Grounds.”
The spectacle of thousands of eagles fishing in such close proximity led to the creation of the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve in 1982, after a fierce battle between those who supported logging in the Chilkat Valley and those who wanted to protect the river. Most people today believe the right decision was made: a world-class natural phenomena was protected, and the fish, eagles, and hundreds of brown bears that call the Chilkat Valley home have spawned a local tourism industry that along with commercial and sport fishing, provide the backbone of the region’s economy.
But a new and very significant threat to the river has surfaced. This region is highly mineralized, and Vancouver, Canada-based Constantine Metals Resources, with financial backing from the DOWA group of Japan is mapping a deposit that appears to be rich in copper, gold, zinc, and silver. Though the “Palmer” deposit was discovered years ago, the high cost of mining in the region due to harsh weather and access challenges has so far kept major development at bay. Were the deposit to be developed, ore trucks would run around the clock all year long, taking crushed ore to ships at the nearby deep-water port and returning with loads of toxic chemicals, fuel, and other supplies. The entire proposition would be very risky — the Haines Highway runs within a few feet of the Chilkat River’s banks and can be covered in ice for half the year.
As is common with copper and gold deposits, the Palmer ore body is also rich in sulfides - 23% - which virtually guarantees the mine will generate sulfuric acid and create a threat of acid mine drainage that would persist for hundreds of years. The mine’s tailing ponds and waste rock piles would be a stone’s throw from the Klehini River that empties into the Chilkat just a few miles upstream from the Preserve and the village of Klukwan. Millions of gallons of wastewater would have to be treated and controlled in perpetuity to prevent sulfuric acid from mobilizing heavy metals into groundwater, and from there, into the rivers and streams. In perpetuity is a long time.
A short way down the coast in Northern British Columbia, the Mt. Polley mine tailings dam collapsed in 2014, unleashing tens of millions of gallons of contaminated wastewater, metals and mud into the Fraser River watershed. The impacts of that catastrophe are still unknown.
Copper is highly toxic to salmon. Incredibly minute quantities (just a few parts per billion) can affect their development and prevent them from locating their home streams. There is virtually no margin for error: salmon have just enough energy to return from the ocean, change their body chemistry to again survive in fresh water, and locate the spawning redds where they were born. If they are weak or unsure of which direction to go, they will run out of energy before getting home. Entire runs could quickly collapse: no fish means no eagles, no bears, no fishing and tourism jobs, no subsistence fishery (every local family is allotted fifty sockeye/year), and literally the destruction of a culture that has nurtured both Native and non-Native Alaskans for generations.
There are a number of S.E. Alaska rivers currently facing threats from Canadian-based mines that will impact trans-boundary waters. Even though the Palmer/Constantine project is located entirely in Alaska, challenging this mine will be no less difficult. Alaska has a poor record for protecting salmon streams from mining. The influence of the oil and mining industries on Alaskan politics and their desire to maximize their own short-term profits over everyone else’s long-term interests cannot be overstated. Campaign contributions and the never-ending presence of lobbyists in Juneau dictate too many administrative decisions.
ACWA is working with local conservation groups, fishermen, tourism operators, the Tlingits of Klukwan, as well as independent businesses and other residents to generate support for the long-term protection of the Chilkat River and the Preserve. AWCA recently worked with the Chilkat Indian Village Tribal Council to draft a nomination for the Chilkat River to be designated an Outstanding National Resource Water (ONRW) under the Clean Water Act (see ADP article below.) As an ONRW, all current activities would be grandfathered into the future, but no new or expanded releases of pollution into the river or its major tributaries would be allowed. Though the mining companies have claimed they wouldn’t design a project that could harm the river, they openly opposed the ONRW designation in order to maintain a future allowance for lowering the water quality in the Chilkat.
We all need metals and minerals. But mining in critical salmon habitat for a mineral as common and as toxic to fish as copper simply makes no sense, especially when the project would risk one of the world’s few remaining natural wonders for the next five hundred years.