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Proposed Canadian Open-pit Gold Mine in the Unuk River Watershed a Threat to Southeast Alaska

The Transboundary Unuk River
The proposed mine would begin operations in The Unuk River Watershed. Photo credit: USGS

Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission JUNEAU, AK, Feb 10, 2023

Upstream from Southeast Alaska, in the British Columbia wilderness, a significant mining boom is taking place. The region is the mining industry's "golden triangle"; for Indigenous peoples, "the sacred headwaters" – the origins of immense watersheds that include the culturally important Shtax'heen (Stikine) Joonáx̱ (Unuk) and T'aaḵu Héeni (Taku) rivers that are vital for Southeast Alaska livelihoods and ways of life.

Dozens of mining projects currently exist in the transboundary watersheds. The development is accelerated by the recently completed high-voltage Northwest Transmission Line, constructed to facilitate major mining projects.

Skeena is proposing to resume operations at the underground Eskay Creek mine as an open-pit gold-silver mine. The mine, re-branded as the Eskay Creek Revitalization Project, lies in the Unuk River watershed, 77 miles south of Iskut, B.C.

The mine plan includes two open pits, the dumping of mining waste into natural lakes expanding behind tailings dams, and calls for structures that will have to be maintained into perpetuity - a time frame within which complete failure is guaranteed to occur.

"The tailings have to remain underwater permanently so as not to go acid. Skeena has no plan to treat the water leaving the tailing lakes. The levels of lake water will have to be maintained, neither going dry nor overtopping the dam, forever.", states Guy Archibald, scientist and executive director of Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission (SEITC), which represents 15 Tribal Nations calling on the Government of Canada and the Province of British Columbia to consider the transboundary impacts of mining operations and consult with affected Tribal Nations on both sides of the border.

SEITC president and 2nd vice president of Tlingit & Haida’s Executive Council, Rob Sanderson, Jr says British Columbia has buried them in the process. “The engagement from B.C. has been insufficient and ignores our Section 35 rights in Canada. We rely on the healthy waters of the Unuk river for our thousands of years-old cultural and subsistence practices.”

Canada and B.C. have enacted legislation that incorporates the United Nations Declaration of Indigenous Rights into domestic law. If a project affects the territories or resources of Indigenous peoples, the Crown is required to obtain their free, prior and informed consent.

The environmental assessment for the Eskay Creek mine largely focuses on the project in isolation, and consultation is currently taking place in closed meetings with the Tahltan nation, with no representation from other Tribes.

The Environmental Assessment Decision is in progress for the Eskay Creek Revitalization Project and the public comment period is open. Comments are due Feb 16 and can be submitted online at British Columbia Environmental Assessment website (click on “Submit Comments”) or by mail to the Environmental Assessment Office, PO Box 9426 Stn Prov Govt, Victoria, BC, V8W 9V1.


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