The Taku Watershed
Imagine one of the wildest places on the planet. Where, across more than four million acres of remote rivers, verdant forest, soaring peaks, alpine snowfields, and marine estuaries teeming with life, there are no roads, no dams, no development or infrastructure of any sort. A place where the word spectacular doesn’t begin to describe the scenery everywhere you look. A place where all five species of wild Pacific salmon begin life and then return to spawn in fresh, clean, unfettered waterways. A place of diverse, interconnected mountains-to-sea habitat supporting wolves, grizzly and black bear, moose, wolverine, lynx, caribou, mountain goats, sheep, otters, porpoises, seals, and large populations of migratory birds.
In a time of declining biodiversity, dwindling salmon runs, and accelerating climate change, a place that is a vast and resilient ecological refugia, with all native flora and fauna present and abundant. And a place of natural bounty continuing to sustain indigenous people, as it has, for centuries. This is the Taku, heart of the Alaska-British Columbia transboundary region, southeast Alaska’s top salmon producer, and the largest totally intact watershed on the Pacific coast of North America. And keeping the Taku wild and thriving is the priority goal of Rivers Without Borders.
The Tulsequah Chief Issue
As is the case with other transboundary watersheds, it is mining or not that will, at least in our time, determine the fate of the Taku. This is the Tulsequah Chief issue, really two issues. One is the small notorious underground BC mine with that name, in the far northwest corner of the province, that has been discharging toxic acidic and heavy metals waste into the lower Taku watershed, right on Alaska’s doorstep, ever since it was abandoned in 1957. Despite calls from Alaska for BC to end this pollution, it has continued unabated. The other issue is the proposed new mine also called Tulsequah Chief which has long been a matter of intense controversy, lawsuits, broken promises, bankruptcies, wasted government resources, and seemingly endless strife. This would be a gold and mixed metals mine, developed in the same area, on the bank of the Tulsequah River very close to its juncture with the Taku and just upstream of the watersheds premier salmon spawning and rearing habitat straddling the international border.
A new mine here would harm fish, impact wildlife, and could be devastating to the ecosystem in the event of a tailings impoundment failure (as happened with BC’s catastrophic Mount Polley mine disaster in the Fraser watershed in 2014). An industrial haul road would be built from Atlin to the lower Taku through epic wilderness and the heart of the traditional territory of the Taku River Tlingit First Nation to access the remote mine, bringing more development with it. A new mine might also introduce industrial barging and dredging supporting it to the Taku, and damage to the shallow meandering river’s fish habitat with it.
For many years BC took the position that cleanup of the historic Tulsequah pollution problem had to be contingent on a new mine being developed at the same site. Never mind that decades of acid mine drainage should serve as a warning that developing a new much bigger mine in this sulfide ore body could create much bigger impacts. With BC, the only choice was a new mine goes in, or the environmental degradation continues, an approach to the problem that was both narrow minded and reflective of a larger development agenda.
The proposed new Tulsequah Chief mine has had key permits since 2002 and has been a dark threatening cloud looming over the watershed since then. On an opposite track, the Land Use Plan between BC and the Taku River Tlingit First Nation, negotiated over years and finalized in 2012, brought attention to the Taku, provides protections for parts of the watershed, and raises watershed conservation expectations, but it sidestepped the Tulsequah Chief issue.
Meanwhile, opposition to a new Tulsequah Chief mine has been steadily growing over many years, coupled with calls for the old mining mess to be cleaned up. The Taku River Tlingit First Nation has been foremost in standing up for its namesake watershed and opposing a new mining road through its territory. Downstream, Alaska commercial fishermen have become strong voices for the Taku. Likewise the Alaska Tlingit Tribe linked to the lower Taku, the Douglas Indian Association. Alaska’s capitol city of Juneau, not far from the mouth of the Taku, has also joined in demands for an end to Tulsequah Chief’s pollution. The state legislature created a Taku Taskforce looking into the issue. And Alaska’s Governor and congressional delegation have told BC counterparts that resolving the Tulsequah Chief problem is the states top transboundary priority.
The Taku story is about stakeholders on both sides of the border standing up for the watershed. Rivers Without Borders is proud to have had a part, with our supporters, in helping to make this happen. Its meant mining proponents have not been able to come up with an acceptable way to access new mining. The economics of Tulsequah Chief, especially in such a remote and challenging setting, have always been shaky at best. Adding firm opposition to the mix, the past decade saw one and then another mining company declare bankruptcy over Tulsequah Chief.
Following that second 2016 bankruptcy, with no proponent pushing for a new mine, and with calls for ending Tulsequah pollution intensified, plus BC political winds shifting more favorably from environmental perspectives, an opportunity to finally transition the Taku beyond mining emerged. In late 2018 BC’s Ministry of Energy, Mines, and Petroleum Resources announced it was initiating a planning process for the closure and cleanup of Tulsequah Chief. Here, finally, was a breakthrough for the Taku!
BC’s Mines Ministry is currently developing a remediation plan for Tulsequah Chief. That’s the very encouraging news! The worrisome part of the picture is that ending any acid mine drainage is always a difficult and expensive proposition (though Tulsequah Chief is a relatively small remediation challenge in the world of mining pollution problems). And with the mining company bankruptcy, little bonding, and weak regulatory laws, BC has yet to determine how it will fund the remediation. The bankruptcy also creates legal complexities. For Rivers Without Borders, this means we must do all we can to keep stakeholders engaged and continuing to pressure BC to follow through. We must also keep a media spotlight on the issue. Expectations are high, and remediation momentum must be sustained.
The cleanup must be comprehensive, and closure permanent. It must reflect indigenous interests and prioritize fish habitat. In short, it must be worthy of a world class salmon river system like the Taku. If this is the case, conditions will be in place making it extremely difficult if not impossible for new mining to threaten the lower Taku. No other part of the watershed is at risk, and much of the watershed is already protected. When this day comes for the wild Taku, hopefully soon, this largest intact river system will also be truly pristine. Everything we do in our campaign to save the Taku is for this outcome.
The Tulsequah River tributary of the Taku River flows down from the upper left of this satellite image. The mainstream Taku River flows in from the upper right and down through the bottom of this image after the two rivers converge. The border with Alaska is the thin yellow line slanting down left to right. Flannigan Slough, the Taku Watershed system's best wild salmon habitat, is right below the convergence of the two rivers. Juneau, Alaska is down below this map on the left where the Taku flows into the Pacific Ocean.