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.”