More than a century ago, steamers laden with starry eyed prospectors plied the inside passage in a desperate race to reach Skagway, Dyea, and the promise of massive gold deposits in the Yukon. Of the 40,000 to stampede across the permafrost, ten percent found gold, one percent struck it rich. The rush ended with hardly a whimper in just three years.
But thhe gold rush is not over. One hundred and fifteen years later, the human race continues to be seduced by the presence of minerals hidden in rock, with the promise of wealth and money. All in the name of happiness, security, prosperity. Once again, the sites lie within the Canadian boundary and once again the road runs through Alaskan waters. Instead of steamers and ferries crossing the border, it is salmon.
The Unuk, the Taku, and the Stikine represent three massive, salmon rearing, transboundary rivers that cross the border of Northern British Columbia and southeast Alaska. They represent one of the last few places on earth where the delicate balance between ocean and land remain in perfect symmetry with salmon serving as their powerful arbitrator. They draw life from the forest and in turn, rejuvenate the rivers, oceans, animals, and humans they touch. Directly and indirectly, they fuel a 2 billion dollar per year industry that radiates throughout the panhandle via tourism and fishing. And we are spitting in their face. Threatening to destroy a miraculous and beautiful gift that has been our heartbeat since the last glacier receded.
As Canada continues its rapid deregulation of environmental protections, tar sand developments, and other atrocities against the natural world, the policies begin to directly threaten us on the other side. Currently, no fewer than nine mines are either being proposed, developed, or are under review in northwest British Columbia. All of which are connected or adjacent to these massive, life giving rivers. Mankind has gold in their hearts, and we cannot stand the thought of it laying uselessly in the earth. Not when there is profit to be made.
Many have pointed to the relevant and convincing argument that Alaskans stand to inherit none of the profit, and all of the risk of these mining projects. The money flows into Canada while acid mine drainage flows into the inlets and bays. Holding pits and dams would be responsible for holding millions of gallons of these toxic pollutants indefinitely. Indefinitely, is a hell of a long time.
And yet we hear assurances from involved mining companies such as NovaGold, Chieftan, and the now infamous Imperial Metals about their environmentally safe practices, technologically sound designs, and pride in their development and design. At least, that’s what Imperial Metals had to say about their Mount Polley mine.
On August 4th, 2014, around 1 am the Mount Polley dam in the Cariboo region of B.C burst. Four days later, the four kilometer sized tailings pond had sent its’ 10 billion liters of water and 4.5 million cubic meters of metals-laden fine sand into Polley Lake. Like a nightmarish game of dominoes, its impact was felt hundreds of kilometers away along the Fraser River, home to one of the largest Chinook runs on the west coast.
It’s been called the biggest environmental disaster in British Columbia’s history, and it could be decades before the full effects are felt and realized as the metals embed themselves in the environment and climb the stairs of the food chain, magnifying their impact with every step. This is the inheritance of the Cariboo region descendants. The guiltless victims of the four horsemen we worship; progress, profit, power, and greed. Like Prince William Sound, the region will never be the same again, the casualties of practices deemed safe and environmentally friendly.
“I apologize for what happened,” Imperial Metals president Brian Kynoch said following the breach. “If you asked me two weeks ago if this could have happened, I would have said it couldn’t.”
How hollow and pointless. Yet in not so many words he admits what we already knew, that open pit mines on this scale are incapable of ensuring the protection of the natural world around them. Since 2012, Imperial Metal had received five citations of violation, the engineering company that designed the pond warned them that the pond was operating beyond capacity and pulled out of the mine operation 3 years before the catastrophe with no explanation.
Mr. Kynoch, you knew this could happen, but it’s tough to hear with gold in your ears and copper in your eyes. All this done in a place with an exponentially larger population density than their recently open mine in Red Chris along a tributary of the Stikine River. Yes, no criminal charges, no moratorium on development, Imperial Metal was allowed to plow forward and put the well being of the salmon and the Alaskans that thrive on them in their greedy hands.
When it comes to environmental issues, Alaskans are often divided. The refuge, offshore oil, and other controversies have split us into the unyielding camps of Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative, progressive and tree hugger. But when it comes to salmon, we have been united. We have pushed and will continue to fight the threat of the Pebble Mine development in Bristol Bay, saying no to short term financial gains in favor of the most productive and healthy Sockeye Salmon fishery in the world.
It is vital that we fight again, that these salmon streams, our home, our way of life remains as unspoiled and protected as possible. The alternative is unthinkable. A CEO two decades from now, standing at a podium, offering empty words of regret as mine tailings and acid drainages rush down the Taku to meet the Sockeye. For Imperial Metals they will simply state their sorrow, pack up, and head for the next deposit, leaving us and our descendants to pick up the shattered pieces of existence.
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