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Mark Hume

Palin's parting words to B.C.: 'Don't spill, baby, don't spill' Add to ...

One of the last issues tackled by Sarah Palin, before she stepped down as the Governor of Alaska yesterday, involves a British Columbia mine that has haunted her state for nearly 50 years.

In a letter to Premier Gordon Campbell, Ms. Palin asked B.C. to tackle the chronic problem of acid waste spilling out of the Tulsequah Chief Mine, in the northwest corner of the province.

An estimated 16 tons of heavy metals have been flowing with waste water into the Tulsequah River annually since the mine was abandoned in the 1950s. The Tulsequah runs into the Taku, which winds into Alaska, where it is rated as one of the state's most important rivers because of its annual run of two million salmon.

It is surprising that Ms. Palin - who as the U.S. vice-presidential candidate last year summarized her ecological concerns with the chant, "Drill, baby, drill," - would become an environmental champion.

But in Alaska salmon matter, and Ms. Palin found time in her final weeks in office to urge Mr. Campbell to join with Alaska in resolving the problem.

Chris Zimmer, Alaska campaign director for the non-profit Rivers Without Borders, said Ms. Palin has rarely been on side with environmentalists.

But she leaves office that way - at least on the Tulsequah Chief matter.

"I would be happy to put out a press release praising her for this," Mr. Zimmer said. "Palin has come late to this issue, but she has put it high on the State agenda. It's a signal Alaska is taking this seriously and although it's her last day in office [Sunday]it's safe to say her departure won't change Alaska's position."

Mr. Zimmer said he expects the Governor's successor and staff to "keep the heat on" both Canada and B.C. over the acid mine problem.

It seemed like the pollution was going to be stopped last year when Vancouver-based Redcorp Ventures Ltd. began moving equipment to the Tulsequah Chief site, with plans to re-open the mine. In preparing to resume operations, Redcorp barged in a water treatment plant, with a promise to both clean up the old mine tailings and to build a new mine to higher environmental standards.

But the crash of metal prices, the global economic slump and Redcorp's troubles getting permits to operate barges through Alaska waters combined to force the company into bankruptcy protection earlier this year.

Ms. Palin drew that situation to Mr. Campbell's attention, and copied him a letter from Thomas Irwin, commissioner of Alaska's Department of Natural Resources, that went to the receiver handling Redcorp's financial matters.

In that letter Mr. Irwin asked that the water treatment plant be left at the mine site, so it can be activated.

Mr. Zimmer said if the water treatment plant goes into operation, it could stop the pollution while a long-term solution is developed. He suggested the best thing would be to cap the mine permanently, and never let it open again.

"That is the wrong place for a mine like that," he said. "It's in wetlands, on the banks of a river, in prime salmon habitat."

Earlier this year Wade Comin, a senior enforcement officer with Environment Canada, visited the site, and issued an Inspector's Direction, giving the mining company until July 15 to stop polluting the Tulsequah River.

Mr. Comin's report, a copy of which was obtained, states tests showed the acid drainage "was acutely lethal with 100 per cent mortality" to rainbow trout and that "immediate action is necessary," to protect fish.

Environment Canada refused to release the report and was unable to provide any update on the situation.

But Mr. Zimmer said with the bankruptcy of Redcorp, the Environment Canada deadline passed without anything changing. The mine continues to leak acid drainage into the salmon river, while the water treatment plant equipment sits nearby, idle.

"What we have to do now is find some funding sources," said Mr. Zimmer. "Maybe Alaska, B.C. and the federal government of Canada can all work together on this. Maybe the company could agree to permanently abandon the mine site, and move on to more appropriate projects. I think the solution is there with enough co-operation all around."

What's needed to resolve this issue is clearly some political leadership.

But now that Ms. Palin has left the stage, the job of saving the Tulsequah and Taku salmon rivers will have to fall to another politician.

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