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.