Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett visited southeast Alaska this summer, trying to calm critics of the province’s aggressive push to build at least 10 mines close to the Alaska border.
“I understand why people feel so strongly about protecting what they have,” Bennett said at a news conference in Juneau. “There’s a way of life here that has tremendous value and the people here don’t want to lose it. I get that.”
Bennett’s conciliatory tone was in response to an unprecedented outpouring of concern from a powerful alliance of Alaskan politicians, tribes, fishing organizations and environmental groups. They’re perturbed by the modern-day gold rush alongside vital transboundary salmon rivers such as the Unuk, Taku and Stikine.
Indeed, long-held perceptions of Canada as a country with strict environmental standards and B.C. as a province that values natural beauty have taken a beating in southeast Alaska. Many now regard Canadians as bad neighbours who unilaterally make decisions that could threaten the region’s two major economic drivers – tourism and fishing.
Alaskans say they are not against resource extraction, provided there are adequate environmental and financial safeguards. But they believe Canada’s record – most recently illustrated by the Mount Polley mine tailings-dam collapse – demonstrate that B.C.’s regulations are not strong enough to protect downstream communities.
It’s little wonder Alaskans have difficulty trusting B.C. when it’s known that in the years leading up to the Mount Polley incident the provincial government permitted substantial increases in mining, beyond the design capacity of the tailings facility. Furthermore, in 2010, the government was told about cracks across the front of the retaining wall.
When Alaskans asked for a panel review of Seabridge Gold’s KSM mine, there was no response from B.C., and the mine was approved. That project will have a massive 239-metre-high earth dam to hold back toxic tailings.
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