- After years of debate, a proposed mine in southeast Alaska near the Chilkat River has a permit to dig an exploratory tunnel and release wastewater.
- The mine has become a divisive topic in the town of Haines, where the Chilkat River sustains the region’s thriving fishing industry.
- Some residents are concerned about how the project could impact salmon in the river and their fishing jobs.
- Others believe the mining companies running the project will be responsible when it comes to protecting the river, while providing jobs in mining.
In southeast Alaska, people and bears alike come to the shore of the Chilkat River to catch salmon beside evergreen trees and mountains with snow-covered stony summits.
Five species of salmon call the Chilkat home, spending most of their life in the Pacific Ocean before returning to the river where they were born to reproduce and eventually die. A two-minute walk from the river, across from a waterfall that flows down a rocky slope, you’ll find Gershon Cohen’s wooden cabin.
Cohen, a water policy advocate, lives in Haines, a small town built between the river and an inlet, surrounded by vibrant waterways that sustain the region’s fishing industry.
The Chilkat River and the Klehini River that it intersects with landed eighth on the list of 10 of the most endangered rivers in the U.S. in April. That’s a list that the nonprofit American Rivers has compiled for the past 40 years.
The reason the nonprofit considers the rivers to be endangered: a proposed mine, called the Palmer project. The controversial mine proposal has caused divisions in the town between residents who are concerned about the mine’s impact on commercial fish stocks and residents who anticipate a boost for businesses in Haines and jobs closer to home. At the center of that debate is weighing short-term economic goals against long-term benefits.
The mine would extract copper, zinc and other metals near the rivers’ glacial source upriver of Haines. Recently, the companies running the project got a permit to dig a tunnel under a glacier — not to extract metals but to assess how they can be pulled out.
Cohen, who nominated the rivers for the list, said the digging could harm salmon by sending wastewater contaminated with metals into the rivers. He said there have been dozens of examples in Alaska and western Canada alone of mines harming fish. That includes the Mount Polley mine in British Columbia, which collapsed in 2014 and sent 25 million cubic meters (6.6 billion gallons) of contaminated water into lakes and rivers.
“Mining has been responsible for eliminating fish habitat in tens of thousands of river miles in the United States,” Cohen said.
However, not everyone is on the same page as Cohen. The debate about the mine has become a divisive topic in the tightknit community of Haines, said Mayor Douglas Olerud, who hasn’t taken a side in the debate.
Haines residents in favor of the mine believe the companies behind it — Constantine Mining LCC and Japan-based miner DOWA — will take enough precautions to protect the rivers.
Margarette Jones — a Haines assembly member, Constantine employee and relative of Merrill Palmer who discovered the metal deposit — said the state of Alaska has toughened its regulations on mining over time to prevent environmental disasters. She’s been impressed with how other mines, such as Green’s Creek, about 140 kilometers (87 miles) away, have kept the environment cleaner than the state requires and hired local people who care about protecting waterways.
“The amount of oversight that the mining industry experiences now compared to 30 or 60 years ago is quite impressive. I definitely think there’s been improvement,” she said.
In Haines, dozens of residents work at mining camps farther south, including Green’s Creek and the Kensington mine, spending up to two weeks on site before returning home. Jones said the proximity of the Palmer project would allow people to commute back and forth daily.
Mayor Olerud has held meetings over the years to allow people to express their views on the mine.
“My role as mayor is to sit and have a conversation with people to understand their fears and their anxieties,” he said, “because we all come from different perspectives.”
Life and jobs revolve around salmon
The project is still in its early stages, and digging hasn’t yet begun at the proposed mine site about 32 km (20 mi) from Haines.
A year ago, the state of Alaska issued a permit to allow the mining companies to dig a 1.5-km (1-mi) tunnel. The blasting and excavation for the tunnel would send over 2.8 million liters (740,000 gallons) of wastewater a day near a creek that connects to the Chilkat River.
Five environmental groups and a tribal government have filed an appeal to challenge that permit, arguing that the wastewater could harm the fishing industry. The appeal also says such a large volume of waste discharge calls for a stricter type of permit under the federal Clean Water Act.
The water flowing from the tunnel would contain copper, selenium and arsenic at possibly higher concentrations than they occur naturally in the river, said Derek Poinsette. He’s the executive director of the Takshanuk Watershed Council, which uses science to monitor water quality in the Chilkat Valley and joined the appeal.
Poinsette said he’s particularly concerned about the copper, which can interfere with salmons’ ability to find their birthplace. Salmon backtrack to their home river using their keen sense of smell, which can become impaired if there’s too much copper in the water, according to a 2022 study.
Poinsette said he’s also concerned that the region’s earthquakes could send mining waste into the Chilkat River. In July 2021, a magnitude 4.4 earthquake with an epicenter just west of Haines shook the entire Chilkat Valley and beyond.
Poinsette, who has lived in the Chilkat Valley since 2008, said most people in the region fish for salmon. During early fall, he gets in a canoe and catches coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) with a fishing pole.
In-mid November, ice covers the Chilkat River except for a stretch upriver of Haines severel kilometers long where cold and warm water mix. That leaves the migrating salmon exposed; sometimes more than 3,000 bald eagles flock to the area for a feast, which in turn draws tourists to see the spectacular bird gathering.
“Life literally revolves around salmon here,” Poinsette said.
That includes work. In Haines, 160 residents had permits for commercial fishing in 2016, which contributes between $5 million and $9 million annually to the town’s economy, according to a report from the Haines Economic Development Corporation.
The same report found that mining employed about 80 residents in 2016. Of the 64 mostly seasonal workers on the Palmer project, about half were from Haines.
For many Indigenous groups in the area, salmon are tied to the culture. In the Chilkat Indian Village of Klukwan, 48 km (30 mi) upriver of Haines, the community has forged a deep relationship with the river over the thousands of years since they first settled there.
The tribal government for the Chilkat Indian Village has spoken out against the mine and joined the appeal. In a press release, village president Kimberly Strong said protecting the river is a responsibility enshrined in the tribe’s constitution.
“Our government will continue to carry out our duty to ensure a system built to discharge mine wastewater and waste rock does not contaminate the pristine quality of the Chilkat River Watershed,” she said.
Assembly member Jones said her co-workers, who include environmental scientists, have made following the state’s environmental standards the priority. She said she recognizes that mining has a long history of causing “indefensible” ecological disasters but added that intense water quality monitoring and new technology are making the industry safer.
Jones told Mongabay she didn’t form an opinion on the controversial mining project until she saw the ground-level work. She said she became a special projects coordinator for Constantine in part because she wanted to know whether the company cared about protecting the river.
The project would require multiple state permits to begin extracting minerals, Jones said, allowing the state to shut the project down if early tunnel digging phases are harming the river’s ecosystem.
At community meetings, representatives from Constantine and DOWA have been there to answer residents’ questions, including how they plan to protect the rivers that commercial fishers rely on. Mayor Olerud said he’s happy with the amount of information the companies have provided.
Others, however, including the Takshanuk Water Council, have a different view of the project’s communication. Poinsette said the state of Alaska waited more than two months before publicly announcing the approval of the drilling permit.
“The state sat through meetings with the tribe and with the Environmental Protection Agency and did not tell anybody that they issued the permit,” he said.
A state judge could hear the appeal on the permit in a few months. Until then, the tunnel is still on hold.
What about after that?
Haines assembly member Ben Aultman-Moore said he’s speaking out against the mine because of his experiences in West Virginia, where he grew up.
Aultman-Moore moved to the Chilkat Valley eight years ago after visiting his brother who worked as a guide for glacier tours south of Haines. He said the pristine environment in Alaska was a contrast from areas of West Virginia damaged from coal mining.
In West Virginia, mines often experienced a boom-and-bust cycle in the 1800s and early 1900s, where workers abandoned towns once they’d mined all the materials or demand had shrunk. That cycle led to deserted mines that leached out toxins. Worldwide, there are myriad similar examples, including the Pacific island of Nauru, where the mining-driven economy collapsed after the island began running out of phosphate in the 1990s.
Aultman-Moore said he believes the Palmer mine could create well-paying jobs for locals and increase spending in Haines for years.
“My question is, what about after that?” he asked.
He added he worries about the risk to the fishing industry from a few years or decades of metal extraction. The salmon in the Chilkat River have supported the people since time immemorial in the valley first settled by Indigenous communities. If the valley lost its salmon, Aultman-Moore said he doesn’t think he could live there anymore.
“I would be so grieved because, not only because we would lose the entire ecological cornerstone of where we live, but because in some ways, Haines and the ecology that exists here is a metaphor for what is left on Earth,” he said.
He echoed environmental organizations’ concerns about wastewater discharge, earthquakes, and trucks crashing while carrying metal ore.
A report from Earthworks focusing on mining impacts in Alaska found an alarming number of spills from trucks carrying ore from major Alaskan mines. The Red Dog mine in northwest Alaska, for instance, was associated with more than 50 hazardous materials spills between 1995 and 2020 because of truck crashes.
For the Palmer project, miners would truck ore the same way locals travel along the scenic Chilkat River: down the 90 km/h (55 mph) Haines Road. At times, only a few feet of grass separate the road from the river. Aultman-Moore said just one truck accident could be a catastrophe.
“If an ore truck crashed and a bunch of ore concentrate went into the Chilkat River even once during spawning season, that could literally be the end of salmon for that entire generation,” he said.
He said he tries to listen to the perspectives of people who support the mine, some of whom have grandparents who profited from the Klondike gold rush of the 1890s. Despite the division over the mine, he added, the town’s residents still care about their neighbors.
“One of the special things about this town is that we can totally disagree and totally still love each other,” Aultman-Moore said.
Assembly member Jones said debating about the mine is critical to allowing people to challenge their own views on the project that will undoubtedly change the region. She said she wants to hear a diversity of opinions, from concerned environmentalists to mining supporters.
“It’s something that drives a lot of Haines community members crazy that we’re so divided on this issue but I think that it only increases the oversight,” she said.
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