The spectacular Unuk is small, but it packs a wallop. At 80 miles (130 km) long and draining some 1500 square miles (3885 km2), it is dwarved by its vast neighbour the Iskut-Stikine. But size doesn’t matter in the case of the Unuk. It beats out its larger northern cousin with the largest runs of king (Chinook) salmon in southern Southeast Alaska and all five species of wild Pacific salmon come home to its waters.
The rich eulachon (aka candlefish or ooligan) runs in the Unuk make it a preferred location for that fishery by both people and seals in the spring. It bristles with diversity ranging from Alpine Tundra to the intact coastal temperate rainforest that covers much of the Alaskan portion of the watershed. Wolf, lynx, grizzly and black bears, fisher, mountain goat, moose, and black-tail deer call it home. It is thought that rare peregrine falcons nest in the remote reaches of the Unuk. U.S. conservationists managed to protect the entire lower river within Misty Fjords National Monument. More recently, their Canadian peers secured the smaller Border Lake Provincial Park on the Canadian side.
In connection with the NTL extension of the power grid up to Bob Quinn Lake, and the power generated by the Iskut River hydroelectric project cluster, a massive open-pit and underground block-cave mine, the Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell (KSM) project, has been proposed by Seabridge Gold. The proposed operation is so big it would straddle two watersheds – the Unuk and the Nass – in two locations connected by twin 23-km (14 mile) long tunnels extending under a glacier which would transport miners and ore between the pits, and the mill and tailings impoundment. It is expected to process between 120,000 to 180,000 tonnes of ore per day over a mine life of 55 years. It is located on salmon bearing waters in multiple First Nation territories. It is just upstream of Misty Fiords National Monument in Alaska, close to the international border, and will threaten downstream Alaska Native and fishing interests. It is currently being reviewed by the Canadian federal and provincial environmental assessment processes, and has substantial potential environmental impacts to the region’s wildlife and fish populations.
Opposition to the KSM project has increased, with some analysts comparing it to the proposed Pebble Project in southwest Alaska.
Significant risks include:
Unfavorable economics – KSM’s low grade ore, remote location and lack of infrastructure make its economics problematic according to analysts.
Mining under glaciers has seldom been tried and is difficult – Very few mining companies have attempted it for a mine of this size, and significant operational challenges have occurred when they have, including tragic consequences.
Unprecedented water management – KSM would need to process almost 21 BILLION gallons of water per year compared to Pebble’s proposed 13 billion and the Bingham Canyon mine’s 3 billion gallons per year.
Legal uncertainties – the twin tunnels run under property claimed by two other companies who are currently suing each other. Both contest Seabridge’s access rights. First Nations also have concerns about the project.
International opposition – KSM is opposed by eleven U.S. federally recognized tribes, and southeast Alaska’s billion-dollar commercial fishing industry.