Ketchikan’s Borough Assembly on Monday called on Canadian regulators to pause permitting, development and expansion of transboundary mines. The assembly is also urging a permanent ban on tailing dams along streams that flow into Southeast Alaska rivers.
Ketchikan residents, along with tribes and environmental groups, have been pushing Ketchikan’s Borough Assembly to pass a resolution calling for changes in British Columbia’s mining sector. But a passage in the nonbinding resolution that calls for a ban on tailings dams – structures that hold back mine waste – had been the source of some disagreement.
The borough manager’s office offered a substitute resolution removing the request for a ban on tailings dams after a resident wrote in with concerns that a ban could restrict future mining projects on Prince of Wales Island.
But all nine citizens who testified at the beginning of the meeting regarding the issue urged the assembly to retain the language. One was Ketchikan resident Clay Bezenek, a member of the Pacific Salmon Commission’s Northern Panel. He said he was concerned that a dam failure could hurt salmon stocks.
“So I don’t have a problem that the mines go in. Trust me. It’s going to employ a lot of people. But, it has to be done to the satisfaction of the people that are going to be on the tail end of a catastrophic accident,” he said.
Assembly Member Austin Otos agreed that the resolution should pass as written and said it would not impact mine prospects in the southern panhandle. He noted that the proposed Bokan and Niblack mines and others on Prince of Wales Island would not have tailing dams.
“To say how this would apply to our economic situation here, I’d be the first one to see some kind of processing facility of mining on the industrial part of Gravina (Island), but I just don’t think this applies to that and I’m in full support of that,” Otos said.
Assembly Member Judith McQuerry suggested wording that would not specifically suggest a ban on tailings dams, but would instead urge Canadian regulators and industry to adopt a zero failure objective to tailings storage facilities.
Assembly Member Jeremy Bynum made a motion to amend the resolution with that wording.
“I think member McQuerry made a very good point. That that really is the objective here. And I think that that language is more in line with not taking a specific policy stance on any particular design or engineering aspect, but more of an outcome. And that is something that I can support,” Bynum said.
“I do not support the amendment; I think we should go forward with a permanent ban on tailings mines. To me that has more teeth to it, and makes more sense in this resolution,” Otos said.
The amendment failed 5-2 with Bynum and Assembly Member Jamie Palmer voting in favor.
The resolution, which included a minor amendment by Bynum, identifying a Canadian official was approved 6-1 with Bynum voting against. The resolution will be sent to Alaska’s congressional delegation and the Canadian government.
Ketchikan’s borough joins several other Southeast communities, including Craig, Sitka, Petersburg and Wrangell, along with environmental groups and a consortium of tribal governments, in approving resolutions calling on Canadian regulators to change mining practices.
This story has been updated to clarify that Clay Bezenek is a member of the Pacific Salmon Commission’s Northern Panel and to remove Juneau as one of the Southeast communities that have signed similar resolutions.