Mining Working Group Session PNWER Day 2

This working group is co-chaired by Alaska State Senator John Coghill (R-Fairbanks) and Tammy Johnson, the Executive Director of the Montana Mining Association.


The session included presentations and dialogue about cross-jurisdictional and trans-boundary mining, primarily in the aftermath of the Mount Polley disaster near Cariboo, BC, on August 4, 2014. This disaster was the result of a breach of the Imperial Metals-owned Mount Polley copper and gold mine tailings pond, releasing its water and slurry with years’ worth of mining waste into Polley Lake.


Response to Mount Polley


Tammy Johnson presented on the Montana state bill to ensure the Mount Polley disaster didn’t happen in Montana. The Montana Mining Association Board of Directors reviewed guidance from PNWER members, white papers, and many other resources, including the Mount Polly Investigative report was released in January (found here), before proceeding toward a legislative response.


SB 409 was introduced in March 2015 by the Montana State Senate Natural Resources Committee Chairman, Chas Vincent (in attendance). The bill passed by overwhelming majority in both chambers and was signed into law on May 4, effective immediately. More details about the bill can be found here.


Dave Morel, the Assistant Deputy Minister of the British Columbia Mines and Minerals Resources Division, presented on the provincial government’s response to the Mount Polley breach.


Each of the more than 100 tailing storage facilities in BC received safety inspections following the Mount Polley disaster. These inspections can be found here, along with other reports in response to the disaster, which showed there was a lack of understanding of the soft subsurface underneath the tailing storage. The report provided seven recommendations the BC government adopted, including consultation with First Nations residing downstream from Mount Polley.


Scott Fraser, Member of the BC Legislature, highlighted the concerns surrounding public confidence. He said tourism was adversely impacted by the Mount Polley disaster, and the First Nations’ way of life was threatened. He asked how the BC government is sending the signal that the public will not pay the price, and who will pay for it?


Morel responded that his division worked with chiefs of the First Nations and have been successful with response and dialogue. He said compensate comes down to who is at fault for the disaster, which still needs to become more clear.


Alaska Mining Overview


Next, Ed Fogels, Deputy Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, presented on Alaska’s major mining operations, the state’s regulatory and permitting process, and mining activity in transboundary watersheds with BC.


Alaska has six operating mines, five of which are metal:

  • Red Dog Mine in the Northwest Arctic Borough is one of the world’s largest zinc producers, owned by NANA Regional Corporation, and employs 610 people. It maintains a subaqueaous tailing storage facility.
  • Fort Knox is the largest gold producer in Alaska and is located near Fairbanks, employing 650 people. It also employs one of the largest dams in the state, and uses subaqueaous tailings storage.
  • Pogo Gold Mine is an underground gold mine near Delta Junction, employing 320 people, and uses a dry stack tailing facility with 20 million tons capacity.
  • Kensington Gold Mine outside of Juneau uses subaqueaous tailings storage.
  • Greens Creek Mine on Admiralty Island operates on U.S. Forest Service and private lands, employing more than 400 people, and uses dry stack tailings.


Fogels explained that in 1992, Alaska granted the authority to DNR to coordinate the large mine permitting process across all agencies via the Large Mine Permitting Team (LMPT), and to allow for voluntary Memoranda of Understanding (MOU) for producers to reimburse the State for billing costs during the permitting process.


Fogels explained that every other dam is regulated by Alaska Dam Safety Program (ADSP) even those in Canada. After Mount Polley, the ADSP looked at Alaska’s jurisdictional requirements for tailings and what can be done to prevent a similar disaster, including in the event of an earthquake.


Alaska’s Coordinated Mine Permitting Process


Fogels then turned to BC mines and Alaska’s coordination efforts with the province, with the goal to figure out how agencies can collaborate across the BC-Alaska border.


Alaska agencies have had great success in talking to the BC permitting table and coordination, said Fogels, via the Large Mine Permitting Team (LMPT – click for more on transboundary mining projects). The LMPT is funded by the applicant, and looks at the different standards across the borders.


Alaska Gov. Bill Walker and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott created a working group that includes state and deputy commissioners to engage and maintain dialogue between Alaska and BC governments, and met most recently in May 2015.


Fogels presented five basic points for opportunities for collaboration to improve bilateral collaboration on mining:

  • Baseline water quality monitoring in underdeveloped and rural areas needs to be better understood with more baseline data.
    • Fogels later elaborated it is important to ensure baseline water quality for all transboundary watershed systems, even if no project is proposed, with the overall intent to broaden and utilize baseline data. He highlighted the opportunity with Canada to help fill the gaps in a geospatial database.
    • Coghill expressed interest in getting the fishing industry involved in baseline data before any project is proposed, highlighting the tensions between industry, residents and agencies behind the proposed Pebble Mine.
  • The state’s environmental assessment and permitting process should be formalized and transparent.
  • The state should thoroughly consider all potential impacts on water quality: public concerns tend to center on watersheds and upstream impacts of mines, especially on commercial and traditional fisheries.
  • Transparency in public communication: in August, the state will consider a forming a citizens advisory committee and any associated costs.


Gloria Totoricaguena, Idaho coordinator for PNWER, asked Fogels to explain how the State of Alaska evades conflicts of interest while the private sector funds the permit process.


Fogels responded that Alaska’s funding for the permitting process is fully voluntary and the state has full legal authority in statutes. MOU between the state and businesses are very clear that private funding does not guarantee any permits, although there is a perception from the public that companies are writing the paychecks for permitting process. In reality, he said, their funds go to the state’s general fund and it’s up to the Legislature to re-appropriate it back to the DNR. He later reiterated the Alaska DNR is a cooperating agency, not the lead, on coordinating permits.


Industry Experience: Towards Sustainable Mining


Karina Briño, President and CEO of the Mining Association of British Columbia (MABC), gave an overview of her organization that works with producers in BC and advocates for sound public policy and the industry. She then gave an overview of the management system in BC known as Towards Sustainable Mining (TSM), which gave recommendations about corporate governance and how mining companies communicate between themselves.


Briño explained TSM is a management system for mining accountability on a site by site basis. For each operation, information is shared with the public that can be verified with meaningful conversation with those impacted by mining operations, such as First Nations, environmental NGOs, businesses and investors, religious groups, organized labor, media, and industry experts. The TSM includes a Broader Community of Interest Advisory Panel that includes members from these groups.


Briño gave an overview of the 23 protocols and indicators and the rating system used for each mining operation. Reports will be made available online at next spring on the tailings management protocols that are currently being reviewed.


Roundtable Discussion on Mining Regulations in Alaska and BC


To introduce this panel, Sen. Coghill emphasized that mining is a value-added industry, and there is an interest to build a robust economy while being careful not to diminish the value of communities nearby, including indigenous nations.


Barry Penner (former BC Attorney General, former Member of the BC Legislature, and former Minister of the Environment and Aboriginal Affairs) said some projects in Alaska receive attention as if mining had just popped up overnight, but many have been ongoing 20 years while only producing for a few years. This is because of the long process it takes to get the mines in production.


Penner displayed a map of where potential mines are restricted in BC where there are more than 1,000 protected parks and areas, totaling 16.6 million hectares, or more than 15 percent of the province’s land. But there are 30.7 million more hectares where permitting a mine is severely restricted, which leaves about 50 percent of the province for mineral exploration.


In total, BC is about 95 million hectares, about three times the size of Montana. Current areas of mining in production totals less than 50,000 hectares, or only 0.04 percent land, but produces over $8.2 billion, said Penner.


Glen Wonders, VP of Technical and Government Affairs at the Association for Mineral Exploration, presented an overview of the regulatory process. This process begins with mining potential, with different permitting processes for minerals and coal. It can take 20 years from discovery to mining in British Columbia, including the financial commitment to mine. Wonders said one in 10,000 mineral discoveries in BC have true potential to become a mine.


Morel described BC’s environmental assessment process as a high-level strategy to consider a project’s potential impacts on fisheries, wildlife, water, society and culture. After the environmental assessment, the process moves to decisions on those impacts and what kind of design commitments may be discharged from the mine site.


Briño added there are different reasons why different projects don’t move into construction or commercial operations, but there is an opportunity to define public policy to help improve the chances of production.


Penner noted the people of Alaska want more public input in the mining process, and asked Fogels to describe the role in which DNR is contacted in the environmental assessment and/or permitting processes.


Fogels responded that when BC projects came on the DNR’s radar, they made calls to build relationships, but are working to fully understand the environmental assessment and permitting processes in BC.


Penner then asked if the U.S. federal government should be more involved through the International Joint Commission (IJC) or with direct conversation between State of Alaska and the federal government as an alternative.


Fogels responded the state should go to the IJC to solve these problems. Under the recently elected Walker administration, the state wants to solve mining and permitting concerns at the state and local levels and build collaborations before jumping to the federal level where the state may be cut out of the collaboration discussion. Tammy Johnson added the IJC is working well to protect the watersheds across international boundaries.


In contrast, Briño and Wonders mentioned that in BC, jurisdictions with a definite interest in a mining operation are part of the discussion in the approval processes, and the Canadian federal government also has a role.


Sen. Coghill concluded the discussion noting Alaskans tend to be part of the mining engagement process well before details hit the ground, as was the case with Pebble Mine.


Action items discussed by the working group include the following:

  • Compare jurisdictional permitting processes and requirements of the U.S. and Canadian federal governments and PNWER member states and provinces.
  • Recommend the PNWER Board to support cross-jurisdiction, trans-boundary issues at the state/provincial level, and encourage BC and Alaska to continue their discussions toward this objective.
  • Recommend the PNWER Board to compare and contrast federal and jurisdiction environmental standards, with a particular focus on water quality.