British Columbia is trying to improve its relationship with Alaska, hoping to head off a backlash in the U.S. against several proposed mines in the northwest corner of the province.
The province's environmental management record has been under increased scrutiny in Alaska since the Mount Polley mine disaster in central B.C., when a tailings pond dam broke this summer, releasing 24 million cubic metres of tainted water. The proposed new mines are all on watersheds that drain from B.C. into Southeast Alaska, raising fears any similar accident would send pollutants flushing across the border.
On Wednesday, B.C. Minister of Energy and Mines Bill Bennett was in Anchorage with a small delegation for a series of meetings with resource industry leaders, state and federal government officials and commercial fishermen.
Among those on his meeting list was U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican who, after her party took control of the Senate in elections Tuesday, is expected to become chair of the powerful Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. She is a strong supporter of the Keystone XL oil pipeline and of oil and gas development in Alaska, but is also among those worried about B.C. mines.
In a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this year, she raised the Mount Polley breach and expressed concern that new B.C. mines have "the potential to adversely affect downstream fisheries and communities in Southeast Alaska."
Mr. Bennett said he's aware of the strong feelings in Alaska and hopes to persuade people that B.C. can develop the mines responsibly.
"I'm here for two purposes, really. Number one to make sure that anyone in Alaska who's interested in the B.C. mining industry has the correct story about our process, our environmental assessment process, our mines approval process," he said in an interview. "The second thing I'm doing here is that I want Alaska to consider sitting down with B.C. over the next several months to discuss some sort of co-operation agreement."
Mr. Bennett said the province works closely with its neighbours to the south – Montana, Idaho and Washington – concerning cross-border issues and he is hoping for a similar arrangement with Alaska.
"If we can come to agreement with Alaska, it should include some additional opportunities for them to be engaged in our approvals processes," he said.
Mr. Bennett said the Mount Polley disaster had understandably heightened concerns in Alaska.
"I think the one uncertainty for both them and for us frankly is what happened at Mount Polley. How could that happen?" he asked of the accident, which is still under investigation. "They have every right to be concerned about that and I'm not here to tell them, you know, 'Don't worry be happy.' If I were them, I'd be worried about it as well."
Heather Hardcastle, a commercial salmon fisher in Southeast Alaska and an outreach co-ordinator with Trout Unlimited, was critical of Mr. Bennett for not visiting Southeast Alaska, the region directly downstream from the proposed mines.
"Anchorage is a two-hour plane ride from Southeast Alaska," she said. "This is where the concerns are the strongest. This is where he should be talking to people."
Chris Zimmer, of the non-profit organization Rivers Without Borders, said people in Alaska don't want promises from politicians, but solid answers about how tailings will be managed in perpetuity.
"We have very little faith that B.C. can pull off this very aggressive, fast-paced development of several mines without damaging our rivers," he said. "The issue isn't if B.C.'s regulations are as strong as Alaska's. The issue is can these developments be done in a way that doesn't harm Alaska? B.C.'s track record doesn't give us much confidence."