When folks share their “animal migration bucket list,” a few world-class events are almost sure to come up – the monarch butterflies in North America, the wildebeests of the Serengeti, and the humpback whales in Hawaiʻi. Outside of the birding community, however, far fewer people are even aware that one of greatest migration spectacles on the planet is the annual return of American bald eagles to the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, just a few miles north of Haines in Southeast Alaska.
The Chilkat River has stunning runs of five species of wild salmon. Every year hundreds of thousands of sockeye, coho, king, pink, and chum salmon return from the Pacific Ocean and make their way back to the Chilkat and its tributary streams where they were spawned years earlier. What makes the Chilkat salmon runs unique, from the eagles’ perspective, is the significant geothermal activity in the region – warm upwellings prevent parts of the river from freezing until later in the winter, long after other salmon streams in the region have been covered in ice. The late season runs remain accessible to eagles and other local fish-eaters until mid-winter, attracting thousands of bald eagles from Prince William Sound to the north, and from Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia to the south. The Tlingits, who have lived here for 1000 years, call the area the “Council Grounds” because of the impressive gathering of eagles there.
The Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve was established in 1982, after a fierce battle between those who supported logging in the Chilkat Valley and those who wanted to protect the river. It’s probably fair to say most people today believe the right decision was made: A world-class natural phenomenon was protected, and the fish, eagles, and hundreds of brown bears that call the Chilkat Valley home have spawned a local tourism industry that, along with commercial and sport fishing, provides the backbone of the region’s economy.
But today, a new and very significant threat to the river has surfaced. The region is highly mineralized, and Canada-based Constantine Metals Resources, with financial backing from the DOWA group of Japan, is mapping a deposit that appears to be rich in copper, gold, zinc, and silver. Though the “Palmer” deposit was discovered years ago, the high cost of mining in the region due to harsh weather and access challenges has so far kept development at bay. Were the deposit to be developed, ore trucks would run around the clock all year long, taking crushed ore to ships at the nearby deep-water port and returning with loads of toxic chemicals, fuel, and other supplies. The proposition would be very risky – the Haines Highway runs within a few feet of the Chilkat River’s banks and can be covered in ice for half the year.
As is common with copper and gold deposits, this ore body is also rich in sulfides, which virtually guarantees that mining would create a threat of acid mine drainage, a threat that would persist for hundreds of years. The mine’s tailing ponds and waste rock piles would be a stone’s throw from the Klehini River, which empties into the Chilkat just a few miles upstream from the eagle preserve. Millions of gallons of wastewater would have to be treated and controlled in perpetuity to prevent sulfuric acid from mobilizing heavy metals into groundwater, and from there, into our rivers and streams. In perpetuity is a long time. Not far away in Northern British Columbia, the Mt. Polley mine tailings dam collapsed in 2014, unleashing tens of millions of gallons of contaminated wastewater, metals, and mud into the Fraser River watershed. The long-term impacts of that catastrophe are still unknown.
Copper is highly toxic to salmon. Incredibly minute quantities (just a few parts per billion) can affect their development and prevent them from locating their home streams. Our salmon have little margin for error: They have just enough energy to return from the ocean, change their body chemistry to again survive in freshwater, and find the spawning redds where they were born. If they are weak or unsure of which direction to go, they can run out of energy before getting home. Entire runs could quickly collapse: No fish means no eagles, no bears, no fishing and tourism jobs, no subsistence fishery (every local family is allotted fifty sockeye a year), and literally the destruction of a culture that has nurtured both native and non-native Alaskans for generations.
A number of Southeastern Alaskan rivers currently face threats from Canadian-based mines, threats that are hard to challenge in the US. Even though the Palmer project is located in Alaska, challenging this mine will be equally difficult. Alaska has a poor record of protecting salmon streams in recent years. The influence of the oil and mining industries on Alaskan politics and their desire to maximize their own short-term profits over everyone else’s long-term interests cannot be overstated. Campaign contributions and the never-ending presence of lobbyists in Juneau dictate many administrative decisions.
The Alaska Clean Water Advocacy project (ACWA) is working with local conservation groups, fishermen, tourism operators, and the Tlingit Village of Klukwan to stop this existential threat to the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve and everything that depends upon it. AWCA recently worked with the village to draft a nomination for the Chilkat River to be designated an Outstanding National Resource Water (ONRW) under the Clean Water Act. As an ONRW, all current activities would be grandfathered into the future, but no new or expanded release of pollution into the river or its major tributaries would be allowed. Though the mining companies have long-claimed they wouldn’t want to see any harm come to the river, they openly oppose the ONRW designation.
Governor Bill Walker sponsored a bill this past legislative session that would have required legislative approval of all ONRW nominations, making it nearly impossible to get nominations for the Chilkat or other waters past referral committees. Ironically, the bill failed because proponents went so overboard with amendments to ensure that an ONRW designation would never occur that the Governor requested his own bill be pulled before a floor vote. Unfortunately, ACWA expects the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation to propose an ONRW evaluation mechanism paralleling the Governor’s original plan in the next few months.
Nevertheless, we believe we will prevail. We are organizing the fishing and tourism communities, also powerful forces in Alaskan politics, as well as many independent businesses and other residents to speak out in favor of long-term protection for the Chilkat River and the preserve. The mine’s investors will soon realize they have a long fight ahead, and it will be decades before they see a financial return, if any.
We all need metals and minerals. But mining in critical salmon habitat for a mineral as common and as toxic to fish as copper simply makes no sense, especially when the project would risk one of the world’s few remaining natural wonders.
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