B.C. mines minister hoping to soothe Alaskans’ concerns after Mount Polley spill

VANCOUVER – British Columbia’s mines minister says he’s aiming to ease Alaska residents’ fears that their region could be harmed by a disaster similar to the Mount Polley accident in the province’s Interior.

Bill Bennett met with mining representatives in Alaska last November, four months after a tailings dam burst and spilled 24 million cubic metres of waste into area waterways, including salmon-bearing rivers.

However, Alaskans living downstream from northwestern B.C. mines said Bennett ignored their worries about the potential for mining pollution flowing their way in the event of another catastrophe.

A year after the August 2014 spill, Bennett said he’s taking the lead from state officials who have arranged dozens of meetings with conservation groups and tribal associations.

A week-long tour that began Sunday replaced plans for a southeast Alaska symposium the ministry stopped pursuing after feedback that the gesture only amounted to lip service.

Local advocates remain skeptical, but have agreed to participate.

“I’m going to get around a bit and see what it’s like to live in southeast Alaska and why people feel so passionate about protecting what they have there,” Bennett said in an interview.

“We have taken our time and done it right.”

Bennett and senior officials will host the majority of meetings in the state capital of Juneau. They will also spend a day in the native community of Ketchikan, visit commercial fishermen along the Taku River and fly to a B.C. mine site by helicopter.

The minister said his main goal will be to correct the impression that the B.C. government approves mine permits under any circumstance, with little care for the environment.

Imperial Metals (TSX:III), which has spent $67 million cleaning up the region, was given a restricted permit to return to limited production of Mount Polley last month. Bennett has said sediment testing will have to continue for decades.

Bennett has repeatedly called Alaskans’ concerns “legitimate” and believes that presenting detailed information about the Alaska government’s role in approving B.C. mines will alleviate concerns.

His delegation will also seek progress on a memorandum of understanding about how the two jurisdictions could deal with transboundary issues such as testing water that flows from British Columbia into Alaska.

Bennett expects much of the week’s discussions to revolve around the Mount Polley disaster and, to a lesser extent, approval of the Red Chris Mine. The mine, about 130 kilometres from the Alaska border, went into full production in June. Imperial Metals owns both projects.

“We’ll try to give some comfort to those who are worried,” Bennett said. “They have every right to ask these questions and I think we need to go there and provide good answers.”

But a collection of conservationists, tribal groups and industry associations believe Bennett is missing their point.

The issue for southeastern Alaskans isn’t a lack of information, it’s their need for “enforceable protections,” said Chris Zimmer, with Rivers Without Borders.

The groups are calling for concrete measures to protect Alaska’s water and fish, including bonds provided up front to cover another Mount Polley-type accident, compensation if Alaskan interests are harmed, and a study on the long-term effects of mining.

Zimmer said an agreement solely to share information would not change anything. He said the groups want regulations enforced by the International Joint Commission, a Canadian-American organization working to protect shared waters.

Dale Kelley, executive director of the Alaska Trollers Association, said the visiting minister should expect a “tough crowd.”

“I do welcome him to our region and I’m happy he’s making outreach,” she said. “But it’s going to take a lot more than some quick meetings.”

Alaska’s Lt.-Gov. Byron Mallott and a delegation from the state made their own unprecedented visit to British Columbia last May to tour the area where the Mount Polley dam collapsed.

Mallott and his officials invited Bennett back to Alaska for his current trip after their series of meetings in B.C.

Follow @TamsynBurgmann on Twitter