Alaska Tribe and Conservation Groups Take Feds to Task on Mining

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (CN) — The Chilkat Indian Village of Klukwan, along with local and national conservation organizations, sued the Bureau of Land Management in federal court, accusing it of disregarding federal laws requiring consideration of the full impacts of mineral mining when it approved a mine exploration plan.

The Klukwan tribal government joined forces with the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, Lynn Canal Conservation, and Rivers Without Borders to request court intervention to halt exploration activities in a watershed vital to the village and wildlife until BLM completes the environmental review prescribed by the National Environmental Policy Act and Administrative Procedure Act.

Vancouver-based mining company Constantine Metal Resources Limited’s exploration activities, dubbed “the Palmer Project,” involve five years of drilling on its mining claims in the Chilkat River Valley watershed to set the stage for possible large-scale underground mining of copper, zinc, gold and silver, according to the complaint filed Monday in the District of Alaska.

The mine claim is located about 16 miles upriver from the village of Klukwan, north of Haines, Alaska. Chilkat means “salmon storehouse” in the native Tlingit language, and the Chilkat watershed includes high-value spawning and rearing areas for all five species of Pacific salmon. It is also home to the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve.

“Over the past several years our Tribe has been having government-to-government discussions with BLM regarding the permitting process for mining in the Chilkat Watershed,” Kimberley Strong, Tribal President of the Chilkat Indian Village of Klukwan, said in a statement. “We have strongly objected to BLM’s permitting process as it does not take into account the environmental risks from a fully operating hardrock mine.”

BLM acknowledged that it did not analyze potential impacts of mine development when it permitted a mining exploration plan in August 2016 and a related road-extension project in September 2017, according to the 25-page complaint.

When BLM issued its Decision Record approving the road extension along with an associated Environmental Assessment and Finding of No Significant Impact, it stated it would not consider development impacts until after a discovery was made.

Its reasoning, according to filings, was that very few exploration projects actually make it to the point of mine development and that the Palmer Project has a greater chance of not becoming a mine than it does of becoming one.

Klukwan and conservation organizations disagree and maintain that BLM is required to consider the environmental impact of a future mine when permitting exploration, not just the impact of the exploration itself.

“In determining whether a proposed action may have potentially significant impacts, the agency must consider not only the action’s direct impacts, but also the cumulative impacts of both the proposed action and reasonably foreseeable future actions, as well as the effects of connected actions,” the complaint states.

The assessment is more meaningful prior to permitting, Klukwan argues, because laws require timely consideration while the agency retains full discretion to prevent potential impacts.

“The incremental permitting of big potential mines like the Palmer Project presents a real threat to downstream communities like Klukwan and Haines, and to the salmon and clean water upon which all Southeast Alaskan communities rely,” executive director for Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, Meredith Trainor, said in a statement.

“Considering only a small area and a short timeframe leaves the public agency blind to any consideration of how downstream communities will be impacted and does not provide communities with an opportunity to raise concerns about what full mineral exploitation will mean to their people and their future,” Trainor said.

In Klukwan, adverse effects on the Chilkat watershed’s salmon, trout, and eulachon could interfere with villagers’ traditional way of life and the economic viability of the village, the complaint says.

Such effects could also harm the commercial fisheries in Lynn Canal and Southeast Alaska, ultimately affecting local jobs and businesses supported by commercial fishing.

The Chilkat River is in the northern part of the transboundary watershed region spanning Alaska and British Columbia. It drains an area of 1,400 square miles, beginning in British Columbia at the Chilkat Glacier. The river flows down past Haines, Alaska into the Lynn Canal, then out into the bays of Southeast Alaska near Juneau.

Lesli Ellis-Wouters, communication director for the Alaska State Office of BLM, said in an email that the BLM does not comment on pending litigation, instead pointing to the National Environmental Protection Act documents on the Palmer Project located on the BLM’s website.

The legal nonprofit Earthjustice is representing Klukwan and the conservation groups.

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