Alaskans Gear Up to fight B.C. company's mine plans 

By Stephen Hume, Vancouver Sun, 1/18/2017

Mt. Washington Copper, which operated in Vancouver Island’s Comox Valley from 1964 to 1967, was abandoned along with 940,000 tonnes of waste rock. Heavy metals leaching from mine waste poisoned the Tsolum River, wiping out the salmon, steelhead and cutthroat trout.

The provincial government estimates the surrounding community’s loss in foregone recreational, tourism and commercial dollars at about $2.7 million a year, a total of more than $125 million in lost revenue since the mine’s closure until completion of a $4.5-million remediation project in 2010, 43 years later.

Unfortunately, the recovery may yet prove only palliative. A provincial background report warns that the ingenious measures — using enhanced wetlands to absorb suspended copper and covering the rock with a waterproof apron — might be effective only for 10 years before leaching polluting metals again.

Now an historically and culturally significant Tlingit community in Alaska’s panhandle worries that it could face a similar fate if a Vancouver-based mining company goes ahead with ambitious plans to develop a mine there.

Constantine Metal Resources, with $22 million in backing from Japan’s Dowa Metals and Mining, has been exploring a copper, zinc, gold and silver deposit near the Klehini River, about 60 kilometres upstream from Haines, Alaska at the head of Lynn Canal.

 “Klukwan village has been here for at least 1,000 years,” Gershon Cohen told me in a telephone interview. The village is historically and culturally famous as the ancient centre of Alaska’s Tlingit culture. Cohen, a specialist in clean water policy, is helping the Tlingit organize opposition.

Villagers fear a mine in the watershed will threaten a critical salmon spawning and rearing area, as well as their traditional way of life and an $11.5-million-a-year fishery, just as mine waste did for the Tsolum.

Liz Cornejo, manager of exploration for the Constantine property, says those concerns would be addressed by aggressive waste management plans for which the exploration project is still gathering relevant data. Its exploration phase recently passed an environmental assessment.

Cornejo said the high grade of the deposit means an underground operation and a much less intrusive environmental footprint.

“We share the same concerns for water quality,” she said. But she emphasized that the project is still in the exploration phase and it is too early to speculate what the best waste management procedures would be.

The Klehini is a major tributary of the Chilkat River, a rich salmon-producing stream. It’s also unique. The water, which pours into the river off the Chilkat Glacier in B.C., stays open when other waterways freeze, which allows chum salmon to spawn late in the year. Bald eagles, many from B.C., mass each winter to feed on the spawned out salmon carcasses. Almost 35 years ago, close to 20,000 hectares around the confluence of the two rivers were set aside as a reserve for the birds.

“Now we have a Vancouver-based exploration firm proposing a copper-gold-zinc mine which threatens acid mine drainage a few miles upstream from the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve and immediately upstream from the Klehini River’s confluence with the Chilkat,” Cohen said.

“You probably couldn’t find a worse place to put a mine — ever.”

The abundance of fish and game that draws the bald eagles attracted humans, too — Chilkat is a Tlingit word that means “basket of fish” — and just upstream from the sanctuary and downstream from the confluence of the two rivers is old Klukwan, among the longest inhabited and most culturally important First Nations settlements on the Northwest Coast. In fact, the name Klukwan is derived from a Tlingit phrase that means “the village that has always been.”

So, the village, which is 88 per cent Tlingit, is applying to the state for a special designation for the rivers that would give top protected status. The issue is dividing communities. Surveys show about half the population of Haines, a predominantly white community where Constantine spends heavily on contractors and suppliers, is opposed to any special protection for the river.

Yet Cohen says strict protection of the water quality is essential. “Minute quantities of heavy metals such as copper can wipe out entire salmon runs,” he said. “It’s a virtual certainty that there will be a discharge of heavy metals into the Klehini-Chilkat River system during the operation of the mine or the century-or-more after closure that will require expensive, technically challenging wastewater treatment.

“Regardless of whether it is a small seepage or a catastrophic failure, it is a matter of when it will happen, not if it will happen.”



Mining and Salmon Don't Mix

By Gershon Cohen PhD, ACWA Project Director

Published in the Earth Island Journal, Summer Edition, 2016

When folks share their “animal migration bucket list,” a few world-class events are sure to come up every time – for example, the monarch butterflies in N. America, the wildebeests in the Serengeti, and the humpback whales in Hawaii.  Far fewer people, outside of the birding community, are even aware that one of greatest migration spectacles on the planet is the annual return of American Bald Eagles to the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, just a few miles north of Haines, in S.E. Alaska.

The Chilkat River has impressive 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 four years before.  What makes the Chilkat salmon runs unique, from the eagles’ perspective, is the significant geothermal activity in the region.  Warm upwellings prevent areas of the River from freezing until much later in the winter after other salmon streams for a thousand miles around are long-covered in ice.  Our late salmon runs therefore remain accessible to the eagles and other local fish-eaters, and the fish “chum” in literally thousands of bald eagles from Prince William Sound to the north and from Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia from the south.  The Tlingits who have lived here for a 1000 years call the area the “Council Grounds.”

The Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve was established in 1982, after a fierce battle between supporters of logging the valley and those who wanted to protect the river.  It’s probably fair to say most people today believe the right decision was made: the Preserve and its eagles and hundreds of brown bears spawned a major tourism industry that along with commercial and sport fishing have created a sustainable backbone to the local economy. 

But today a new, and very significant threat to the river, eagles and bears of the Chilkat Valley has surfaced.  The region is highly mineralized and a deposit is being mapped that appears to be rich in copper, gold, zinc, and silver.  Exploration of the ore body is being carried out by Vancouver-based Constantine Metals Resources, with financial backing from the Japanese DOWA group.  The “Palmer” deposit has been known for many years, but the costs of mining in Alaska due to the challenge of our weather and the logistics of getting supplies to the site and the ore out via our deep-water port have kept further development at bay.  Ore trucks would run around the clock all year long, taking crushed ore to ships and returning with chemicals and other supplies, within feet of the Chilkat River’s banks on a road that can be covered in ice for half the year. 

Gold prices are lagging and copper prices are at rock bottom; it would appear Constantine and DOWA simply want to have this deposit mapped and ready to go if/when the market turns around.  As is common with copper and gold deposits, this ore body is also rich in sulfides – as much as 23% – which virtually guarantees there will be a threat from acid mine drainage for hundreds of years.  The mine’s tailings ponds and waste rock piles would have to be treated and controlled in perpetuity to prevent sulfuric acid generation, which can liberate heavy metals into groundwater and on into our rivers and streams.  Forever is a long time.

Copper, in particular, is highly toxic to salmonids.  In minute quantities (a few parts/billion) it can affect their development and prevent them from locating their home streams.  Salmon have little margin for error: they have just enough energy to return from the ocean, change their body chemistry to live in fresh water again, and find the spawning redds where they were born.  If they are physically weak or unsure of which direction to go, they can run out of energy before getting home and the entire run can literally collapse.  No fish = no eagles and no bears.  It would also mean the end of our fishing and tourism industries, our subsistence harvest (every local family is allotted fifty sockeye every year) and literally the demise of the area’s culture, enjoyed by Native and non-Native Alaskans for generations.

ACWA, the Alaska Clean Water Advocacy project is working with local conservation groups, fishermen, tourism operators, and the Tlingit Village of Klukwan to stop this existential threat to the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve and everything that depends upon it.  We recently assisted the drafting of a nomination for the Chilkat to be designated an Outstanding National Resource Water (ONRW) under the Clean Water Act and Alaska Water Quality Standards.  As an ONRW, all current activities would be grandfathered in to the future, but no permanent degradation of the river or its major tributaries would be allowed.  While the mine’s employees have often claimed they wouldn’t want to see any harm come to the river, they openly opposed the ONRW designation.  The only reason to oppose would be to retain the right to apply for a permit to degrade local water quality. 

Alaska has a poor record of protecting salmon streams in recent years.  The influence of the oil and mining industries on Alaskan politics, and their desire to maximize their short-term profits over the long-term interests of everyone else cannot be overstated.  Large campaign contributions and the never-ending presence of their lobbyists in the Capitol have enabled the regular re-election of many members of our Legislature.  Even our recently elected Governor, a former Republican turned Independent, sponsored a bill this past legislative session that would have required Legislative approval of all ONRW nominations.  This would have eliminated any chance of getting an ONRW designation passed since one chair from any referral committee would be able to block the bill from moving forward.  Ironically, the bill failed – but only because proponents went so overboard to ensure that an ONRW designation would never occur that the Governor requested his own bill be kept from a floor vote.  Nevertheless, we expect the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation to propose an ONRW evaluation mechanism paralleling the Governor’s original bill in the next few months. 

We believe we can prevail.  We are organizing the fishing and tourism communities, also powerful forces in Alaska politics, as well as other independent businesses to speak in favor of long-term protection for the Chilkat River and the Preserve.  Many proposed mining projects are abandoned once the investors realize there will be a long fight ahead, and it will be decades before they get a return on their money.  We will be doing everything we can to ensure that DOWA hears that message loud and clear. 

ACWA is not opposed to mining in principle, we need metals and minerals for many reasons, but mining in critical salmon habitat, especially for a mineral as common as copper, simply makes no sense.  Especially when the project would risk one of the world’s few remaining natural wonders. 



National Observer   March 30 2016

canadian mine threatens heart and soul of alaskan community

By Charles Mandel in NewsPolitics | March 30th 2016

Awestruck by the glacier-streaked mountains jutting from the ground and the powerful flowing Chilkat River slicing through the deep valley, Joe Ordonez moved to Haines, Alaska in 1987. Now, 29 years later, Ordonez is fighting to preserve that same natural grandeur - which includes a world-renowned bald eagle preserve - from a proposed copper, zinc, silver and gold mine upstream.

“It’s a terrible location for a mine,” says Ordonez, who previously worked as a naturalist on cruise ships, work which took him from the Amazon to Antarctica, and who today operates a tour guide company in the region. “I’ve worked in all seven continents. I’ve seen the most amazing places in the world and here’s one of them right where I live in Haines, Alaska. It’s just not worth the risk. “

Where many see an unspoiled paradise brimming with wildlife, others see money and minerals. Constantine Metal Resources, a mineral exploration company based in Vancouver, British Columbia, believes the proposed mine location - known as the Palmer Project - is rich in copper and zinc as well as gold and silver. Backing the penny stock company is Japan’s Dowa Metals and Mining Co, a multinational that is providing Constantine with $22-million in exploration funding over four years in return for a 49 per cent interest in the project. Executives from Constantine did not return calls from National Observer.

If developed, the mine would sit approximately 60 kilometres upstream from Haines, adjacent to the Klehini River. The Klenhini is a major tributary of the Chilkat. Not far from the Palmer Project the two rivers merge and at the confluence sits the ancient Tlingit community of Klukwan, whose name translates to mean eternal village. Ordonez describes the village as one of the longest continually inhabited places in the Americas. “The people there today still catch fish right off their back door and live on it.”

The wild salmon running through the Chilkat don’t just feed the folks in Klukwan and Haines. A combination of natural forces near Klukwan leaves the water ice-free in the winter months, allowing chum salmon to spawn late in the year. In turn the salmon attract thousands of eagles to feed. The natural phenomenon led to the creation in 1982 of the 48,000 acre Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. During the winter over 3,500 bald eagles flock there from as far away as British Columbia, the Yukon and Oregon.

It’s not unusual for tourists to the area to see up to 1,000 eagles at a time. Ordonez points out that the leading cause of eagle mortality is winter starvation. “So this is a critical area of survival for bald eagles.”

But that could all change if the mine moves ahead. Ordonez frets that a catastrophic failure, such as that which took place at Mount Polley, might occur. Described as the worst environmental mining disaster in Canadian history, an estimated 24 million cubic metres of mining waste and water broke free of the Mount Polley mine tailings pond on August 4, 2014. The mix of toxic metals and water flowed into Hazeltine Creek and then Quesnel Lake, a critical salmon watershed. The Palmer Project would require a similar kind of tailings pond.

Another concerned area resident is Gershon Cohen. Originally from Philadelphia, Cohen arrived in Alaska in 1983 after seeing it for the first time the previous year. “I just fell in love with the place and came back the next year,” he says. The Chilkat River runs right past Cohen’s front door. Across the way he can hear the roar of the 1,000 foot waterfall that plunges off the glacier on the mountains. “The place is alive with salmon, eagles, bears and moose,” Cohen says. “The Chilkat River is the heart and soul of this community.”

But Cohen views the mine as a threat to this unspoiled region. “Once they build the tailings pond and they’ve got millions of gallons of wastewater held behind an earthen dam, there’s basically a sword hanging over the heads of the community forever, because that tailings pond will have to be maintained in perpetuity.”

Cohen has a PhD in environmental policy and specializes in water pollution issues. He points out that it doesn’t even necessarily take a catastrophic spill to end the salmon run. If any minerals should leach into the Klehini from the mine site and then into the Chilkat, they could cause the salmon to become disoriented and leave them unable to determine where they should properly lay their eggs. “Then that’s the end of the run,” Cohen says. “It’s a very fragile system and we’re very concerned that having a large-scale mine in the area would threaten that for many, many years to come.”

For its part, on its website Constantine says, “Not only is protecting the environment, fishery, fauna, and water quality extremely important to Constantine, it is the law.” The company says it has used a third party since 2008 to collect water quality data in order to establish baseline environmental conditions. Beyond that, Constantine notes that before it can successfully establish a fully operational mine, “lengthy and detailed studies” will be required on everything from air and water quality to wetlands and wildlife. They also promise community consultation and socioeconomic studies before the mine gains its permits and begins construction.

The Village of Klukwan isn’t waiting and taking any chances. With help from Cohen, the community has applied to the state to have the Chilkat declared an Outstanding Natural Resource Water, which would give the river protected status. But the process in Alaska to have a river made into an Outstanding Natural Resource Water doesn’t exist and is holding up the nomination while the state legislature debates how to move ahead.

The nomination has polarized people in Haines, a town of 2,500 containing a mix of fishers, tourism operators, telecommuters, retirees, as well as a number of mine employees and contractors and suppliers. A Haines Chamber of Commerce survey found that roughly half the chamber’s members oppose the designation.

Constantine notes that it paid out $198,848 in payroll in 2013 to its 10 employees and another $276,110 to contractors and suppliers. And in 2014, the Palmer Project provided nearly $3-million of direct economic benefit to the Alaska economy, including $1.47 million to Haines.

None of that deters either Cohen and Ordonez, who are determined to spread the word of the threat to their beloved wilderness region. In fact, Cohen calls Constantine’s contributions to the economy a farce. “We have an exploratory company based in Canada coming to a small Alaskan town, throwing money at civic causes, showing up at fundraisers, hiring a few locals to do construction and core drilling jobs in the summer and working the PR angles hard to convince people they care about our community.”

Cohen calls the company’s promises and assurances meaningless. He points out that as an exploratory company Constantine will likely have nothing to do with the design and operation of the mine. “They will be off looking for another ore body to develop.” Cohen says he’s not opposed to mining, but doesn’t believe in placing one in critical fisheries habit. There’s very few places left in the world that have wild salmon and we’re lucky enough to be one of them.”

Similarly, Ordonez recalls living in Bellingham, Washington where he heard stories about how people “could walk across the river on the backs of the salmon in the old days." Now he says the state spends millions just to rehabilitate a stream. “Here we’ve got a place where we don’t have to bring things back because the salmon are there right now.”

Ordonez even wrote a book last year titled Where Eagles Gather in order to bring attention to the eagle preserve and the threat it faces. According to Ordonez, eagles are a symbol of wilderness. “They are a symbol of something that’s disappearing. We need to gather together and fight this and protect it.”


Recent articles on ACWA and our issues...


National Audubon Magazine December 20th, 2017

Proposed Mine Threatens the World's Largest Concentration of Bald Eagles

CBC August 20th, 2016

Vancouver-based mining company receives go-ahead to expand near Alaska eagle preserve


AP --  August 20th, 2016



National Observer   March 30th, 2016



A recent AP interview (May 2nd) led to articles in numerous outlets. (CNBC, Herald Times, US News and World Report):

CNBC     May 4th, 2016


Vice News     May 6th, 2016


San Francisco Chronicle    May 6th, 2016