This report contains a correction.
Introduction and summary
The Biden administration’s America the Beautiful initiative1 has recently bolstered conservation and economic activity in southeast Alaska.2 Yet only a few miles away, Canada is allowing dangerous gold mines in British Columbia to put Alaskans, Alaska Native communities, and the ecosystems they rely on at risk. The United States must exercise its rights under the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty3 to address these mining and diplomatic malpractices. The United States’ ability to clean up mining activity at home and abroad will soon be put to the test as the world moves to secure new supplies of the critical minerals needed to build a clean energy economy.
New mining developments are moving forward in the transboundary region of British Columbia along the Alaskan border without the consent of Tribes and Alaskan communities downstream. Despite U.S. complaints under the Boundary Waters Treaty, both the Canadian federal government and the provincial government of British Columbia are pushing ahead.
Much of this new mining activity is focused within the watersheds of the Taku, Stikine, and Unuk-Nass rivers. These rivers flow from Canada’s boreal forest into Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, the site of one of President Joe Biden’s largest 4 conservation achievements5 and a bastion of ecosystem resilience for the state’s salmon fisheries.6 The dams used to capture and retain the toxic mine tailings—or waste—associated with gold-copper mining are prone to leakage and collapse, putting southeast Alaska communities, Tribes, and ecosystems at serious risk. Provincial mining activity in this region is recklessly underregulated, and efforts to introduce safeguards have faced diplomatic stonewalling from both the Canadian government and the provincial government of British Columbia. Low British Columbian bonding requirements, lax environmental protections, and no requirement to consult with the United States on new projects have attracted large gold mining operations to the region without consent or sufficient protections for downstream communities in Alaska. The International Joint Commission (IJC), a forum created to help the United States and Canada work out cross-border waterway issues and governed by the Boundary Waters Treaty,7 has been receiving increased attention as communities and Tribes call on both governments to find protective resolutions.8
The Biden administration should exercise its authority under the Boundary Waters Treaty—which Canada may already be violating by allowing British Columbian pollution to enter U.S. waters—to engage the government of Canada on these important transboundary environmental concerns:
- The United States should press Canada to join IJC proceedings to work out the mining pollution issues along the British Columbia-Alaska border.
- Through this process, the IJC should consider setting up watershed boards co-led by local Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.
- Similarly, the IJC should follow Indigenous nations’ recommendation to pause all mine permitting in the transboundary British Columbia region until watershed protections are implemented.
- Both Canada and the United States should also strengthen bonding requirements for mine liabilities so communities are not left holding the bag for tailings dam breaches.
This is an immediate and important test case of the U.S. capacity to effectuate better practices and community protections for three reasons. First, unlike much of the new mining activity likely to come throughout the world, these mines are primarily seeking gold to be used in jewelry, not minerals critical to the clean energy transition.9 Second, Canada is a close ally of the United States and is already bound by treaty to jointly manage these transboundary rivers for the health and safety of communities on both sides of the border.10 Third, American citizens are being put at risk by these unsafe mining practices. If even in these conditions the United States cannot convince Canada to improve their mining practices, it will indicate how challenging success may prove in even harder cases yet to come.
A question of growing global significance
With the nation moving quickly toward a clean energy future, the demand for the metals needed for electric vehicles and renewable manufacturing is bringing mining issues to the forefront in the United States and throughout the world. That demand has brought with it the need for a secure U.S. mineral supply chain that sources metals from countries working to develop strong human and environmental rights records.11 With that in mind, President Biden and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently announced an enhanced joint focus on the clean energy transition that includes. increasing critical minerals trade and maintaining environmental integrity.12
Because of the momentum for critical minerals, British Columbia gold mining corporations have attempted to rebrand their mining operations as focused on extracting copper for the burgeoning electronic market.13 But these are not critical minerals mines. While raw copper is indeed important for electronics and energy infrastructure, the low-grade copper ore in these deposits is extracted as a byproduct of the more valuable gold deposits.14 In fact, mineral deposits throughout the region are so rich in high-value gold that the industry has nicknamed the area “the Golden Triangle.”15 This gold extraction is not necessary for the transitioning economy; it simply enriches the wealthy. According to the World Gold Council, 93 percent of mined gold becomes jewelry or bullion, and extracting the amount of gold needed to create one gold ring generates 20 tons of waste.16
Claims that these gold mines are “critical minerals” mines masks their true purpose; it also undermines the growing need for critical minerals to support clean energy expansions by taking advantage of new regulatory processes while putting sensitive ecosystems and the communities that rely on them at risk. The steady decarbonization of the energy, transportation, and industrial sectors presents an opportunity to transition to a clean economy with a net conservation benefit, and international cooperation will play a critical role in achieving this goal. President Biden and Prime Minister Trudeau have both stressed the need for a clean energy transition that protects ecosystems and communities—now is their chance to prove that commitment.
The pollution dangers of gold-copper mining in British Columbia
At least 30 Canadian gold-copper mines have been in some phase of advanced exploration, permitting, development, or operation in the transboundary region of Alaska and British Columbia over the past 10 years.17 These types of mines use massive earthen dams, called tailings dams, to prevent toxic mining waste from entering downhill waterways. However, tailings dams are not constructed with a fixed life expectancy; their developers expect them to stay where they are constructed forever, despite this being structurally impossible.18 And tailings dams have a long history of catastrophic failures—a rate of failure that is increasing worldwide. It is not a matter of whether these dams will fail, but when. 19
The danger of tailings dams in British Columbia is well documented: A recent report identified 12 tailings dams in the province at risk of collapse, six of which are in Alaska-British Columbia transboundary watersheds.20 In 2014, the dam of the Mount Polley mine in the Fraser River watershed of central British Columbia breached and sent 850 million cubic feet of mine waste hurtling into the lake below, just missing the town on its shores.21 Mount Polley’s sister mine, the Red Chris mine, was permitted to begin operations with a much larger tailings facility at the headwaters of the Stikine River only months after the Mount Polley disaster. Another four planned tailings dams are slated for construction at the nearby Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell (KSM) gold-copper mine only 19 miles from the U.S. border. One of the planned KSM mine dams will be among the tallest of its kind worldwide, earning it the most severe failure consequence category possible (“extreme”) by the engineer of record, meaning it is predicted to kill 100 or more people if a catastrophic breach were to occur.*22 Newer, taller, and riskier dam designs are projected to cause more frequent and severe collapses over the next few decades,23 putting downstream communities—who often do not have the capability to carry out rapid assisted evacuation plans—at severe risk.24
More than 3,000 people live in the shadow of western British Columbia tailings dams across six Indigenous and First Peoples riverside communities of the Taku River Tlingit, Tahltan, and Nisga’a First Nations.25 An additional roughly 80,000 people live just outside the affected watersheds in Alaska, including the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian peoples.26 Seven southeast Alaska Tribes, nine local municipalities, and the entire Alaska congressional delegation have been pressing the federal government for action, as all of these communities rely heavily on the watersheds’ health to maintain their ways of life, fishing, and tourism. In fact, the river habitats in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest directly downstream from the northwest British Columbia mines support some of the largest intact salmon spawning habitats in the world, contributing $50 million to Alaska’s economy and to the state’s $1 billion salmon fishery and $1 billion tourism industries—as well as to the food security and livelihoods of tens of thousands of people.27
British Columbia gold-copper mines also have a colorful history of environmental assessment certificate failures due to their inability to prevent damage to the salmon fisheries they share space with.28 More than half of the lower Stikine and Unuk rivers’ watersheds are already under mineral extraction lease claims by mining companies,29 and the pollution that could leach into them from poorly planned gold-copper tailings dams is extremely toxic. Copper and selenium, which both commonly leach out of tailings dams as uncaptured waste, can significantly harm and reduce salmon populations even at extremely low concentrations.30
Teck Metals Corp. has been one of the worst perpetrators of transboundary river pollution in the greater U.S.-British Columbia transboundary region. One of its subsidiaries was fined $60 million in 2021 and another $16 million in 2023 for allowing toxic coal mine waste to leach into the Montana-British Columbia transboundary Elk-Kootenai River. The accident poisoned important trout fisheries on both sides of the border and resulted in one of the largest Canadian Fisheries Act fines to date.31 A new CAP analysis found there are more than 500 miles of salmon-supporting rivers and streams below the current and proposed mines in the Canada-Alaska transboundary region.32 These watersheds comprise some of the largest and most productive intact salmon habitats in the world.33 The consequences of their potential contamination could not be more dire.
Best practices for tailings dams
An international group of scientists, community groups, and nongovernmental organizations put together a set of best practices for tailings dams, including banning new tailings dams in areas upstream of communities that are unable to efficiently complete an assisted evacuation, creating robust dam containment monitoring systems, and developing a stronger focus on both community and mine worker safety.34 As demand for critical minerals increases the urgency of metals mine permitting and development, implementing these best practices will be imperative for maintaining community safety in Canada and the United States.
Liability bonding requirements
Given the significant risks that gold-copper mines pose to nearby watersheds and communities, all mines in Canada and the United States are required to receive liability assessments regularly throughout their planning process and operational and decommissioned lifetime so stakeholders and Tribes can understand the potential financial impact of the mines’ presence on people and the environment. Mine operators are also required to purchase liability bonds to cover the potential costs associated with accident cleanup and environmental remediation. However, British Columbia mines are not required to be bonded for their full liability.35
This lack of bonding requirements has increased catastrophic failure risk, as very few companies in the province bother to fully bond their projects.36 For example, Imperial Metals’ Red Chris mine in the Stikine River watershed, which flows from northwest British Columbia into southeast Alaska, was bonded for $13.7 million in 2021 despite a liability estimate of $113.2 million—a potential monetary shortfall of nearly $100 million. This shortfall means cleanup would likely eventually fall to Canadian taxpayers, but it also means that in the meantime, downstream communities in Alaska would bear the brunt of the pollution without immediate funds to begin remediation. Across all British Columbia mining activity, there is a total liabilities bond shortfall of more than $1 billion—nearly 80 percent of which belongs to Teck Metals,37 which is the co-owner of two of the new mines in the transboundary region.
Across all British Columbia mining activity, there is a total liabilities bond shortfall of more than $1 billion—nearly 80 percent of which belongs to Teck Metals, which is the co-owner of two of the new mines in the transboundary region.
Teck Metals Corp. already has a poor reputation on the British Columbia side of the Alaska-British Columbia transboundary region: Its abandoned Tulsequah Chief mine in the Taku River watershed has been leaking acidic runoff for decades. While the remediation costs are estimated to exceed $100 million over the next two decades, the company has only committed a paltry 1.5 percent—totaling $1.5 million—of what’s needed for remediation and is not required to pay more.38 Unsurprisingly, the Tulsequah Chief mine is only bonded for $151,410—just 0.2 percent of its nearly $73 million liability estimate—and Teck is $800 million behind on unfunded liability portfoliowide.39 On the Alaskan side of the border, where mining regulations are significantly more protective, Teck is held to a much higher standard. Teck’s Red Dog gold mine in the northwest region of the state is bonded for $558 million,40 more than all of its operating and closed mines in the province combined.41 Should a failure at any one of the British Columbia tailings dams occur, there may not be enough funds immediately available to cover remediation costs before significant damage is done.
The Boundary Waters Treaty and the International Joint Commission
Communities and local governments in the transboundary region have pleaded with the Canadian and U.S. governments to address this reckless mining activity and the weak mining regulation in British Columbia. Indigenous Tribes along the border region in particular—including the Tlingit and Haida Tribes in Alaska and other Tribes in the U.S.-British Columbia transboundary regions of Montana, Idaho, and Washington—have urged each country to uphold its commitments to protecting the safety and health of affected transboundary rivers in Alaska from British Columbia mine pollution under the Boundary Waters Treaty.42 Signed in 1909, the treaty created the IJC, whose objective is to provide a platform for working out management strategies for shipping, drinking water, and conservation, as well as to prevent and resolve transboundary water disputes.43 The commission has become one of the main avenues for mediation over transboundary waterway issues between the two countries.
After years of political pressure to draw attention to British Columbia-Alaska transboundary mining pollution, in 2019, under the request of Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R), IJC commissioners traveled to southeast Alaska and British Columbia for a “fact-finding mission”; however, the IJC’s Canadian members have not engaged any further on the matter.44 Alaska Sens. Murkowski and Dan Sullivan (R), as well as then-Rep. Don Young (R-AK), pushed the U.S. State Department for “engagement” and “leadership” against the threats posed by British Columbia mining activity in 2021,45 but progress on both sides of the border appears to have stalled once again.
A pattern of British Columbia transboundary pollution and Canadian inaction
This is not the first request for IJC action on transboundary mining pollution to encounter official Canadian resistance. During the 2018 IJC investigation into Teck Metals’ selenium pollution in the British Columbia/Montana/Idaho transboundary Elk-Kootenai watershed, the American IJC commissioners took the unusual step of sending a private letter to the State Department, explaining that the “province of British Columbia (B.C.) knows that mining impacts cannot be mitigated to satisfy Article IV of the Boundary Waters Treaty, and, for this reason, B.C. does not want the Parties to refer mining issues to the IJC for resolution.”46 Furthermore, the U.S. commissioners accused their Canadian IJC counterparts of refusing to cooperate in IJC processes and suppressing data to hide the true extent of the mine’s impacts.47
Six governments of the transboundary Ktunaxa Nation recently called for an IJC investigation—calls that were supported by the Biden administration48 and acknowledged by both Trudeau and Biden during their latest meeting in March 2023.49 The State Department has been expressing support for IJC proceedings to continue for years, and after a recent diplomatic summit between President Biden and Prime Minister Trudeau, the two leaders plan to have a mitigation agreement ready later this year50—though it is unclear whether this will include IJC involvement. Whether the alleged data suppression was at the behest of the British Columbia or Canadian governments remains to be seen, but the Canadian federal government’s newly revived will to confront the provinces on their mining policies suggests there may be avenues to kick-start the IJC process in Alaska going forward.
Protecting shared watersheds requires international collaboration. With President Biden having recently strengthened domestic protections in Alaska for the Tongass National Forest and Bristol Bay51 and addressed potential transboundary pollution sources by stopping new mining in Minnesota’s Rainy River watershed, including the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, now is the perfect time to build on that momentum. To support Tribes and communities asking for similar international development moratoriums and focus on encouraging Canadian action to rectify the country’s violation of Article 4 of the Boundary Waters Treaty, policymakers in the United States should take the following actions to address this critical issue.
Press the Canadian government to begin the IJC process
President Biden and the Department of State should press their Canadian counterparts to agree to a joint request for a reference study to the IJC, pursuant to Article 9 of the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909. This reference should address British Columbia mining impacts from pollution in Alaska-British Columbia transboundary and traditional waterways and lead to the establishment of binding and enforceable international protections through the watershed boards of the International Watersheds Initiative. President Biden and Prime Minister Trudeau’s March 2023 joint statement commits both countries to create a critical mineral supply chain that meets “strong environmental, sustainability, worker, health and safety, Indigenous and Tribal consultation and partnership, and community engagement standards;”52 a joint IJC reference study request is critical to meeting these standards. If the two governments cannot even accomplish this goal with noncritical mines squarely within their own jurisdictions, it will call into question the plausibility of achieving this goal in cases yet to come. The administration should also increase pressure on British Columbia’s provincial government to support this request and allow British Columbian experts to participate in the investigation. Finally, the administration should consider unilaterally initiating IJC oversight if Canada does not immediately agree to a joint reference.
Engage transboundary and Indigenous communities
The Biden administration should call on Canada and the British Columbia provincial government to put in place an immediate pause on new mine permitting and development in the Alaska-British Columbia transboundary region until the IJC is engaged collaboratively with local Tribes, First Nations, and other communities on both sides of the border. Regional Tribes and municipalities, the Alaska congressional delegation, and Alaska lawmakers have all requested binding watershed protections from British Columbia mining for a decade,53 including an immediate, temporary pause in mining and a permanent ban on mine waste dams along shared rivers.54 Furthermore, per the requests of multiple U.S. Tribes, including the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska and the transboundary Ktunaxa Nation, Indigenous-led IJC watershed boards through the International Watersheds Initiative must be set up so those directly affected by the mines can help lead in the IJC process.55 These front-line communities are the most directly affected by British Columbia mining operations and deserve a seat at the table to co-steward the rivers they rely on.56
Modernize mining and bonding on both sides of the border
Under the IJC framework, the nations should negotiate a requirement for British Columbia mines to be fully bonded for all estimated liabilities, especially for mines with tailings dams, as a condition of permitting; such a requirement will help ensure enough funds are on hand for remediation in the event of leakage or a catastrophic structural failure, bringing them in line with bonding requirements in Alaska. The ability of British Columbia mining corporations with reckless and dangerous histories to be bonded for significantly less than their mines’ liability estimates is inexcusable, especially for those operating along the U.S. border. In the United States, rules governing hardrock mining on lands managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service57 need reforms to strengthen protections for nearby communities and sensitive habitats. 58
Transboundary watershed management inherently requires a collaborative planning approach. Local communities and regional representatives have been attempting to push Canada to commit to IJC proceedings for years, while Canada appears to be stonewalling the issue entirely. The Biden administration should elevate this issue directly with senior Canadian officials both to address these critical environmental and safety issues as well as to ensure a more equitable supply chain that does not ignore community input and consent. A successful IJC reference for the Alaska-British Columbia transboundary rivers and the creation of Indigenous- and community-led watershed boards through the International Watersheds Initiative in this region would similarly bring President Biden closer to his larger 30×30 conservation goals, ensure a healthier future for the southeast Alaskan transboundary watersheds, support the communities who depend on them, and set up the governments for successful implementation of their pledges to change the paradigm for the new critical minerals mining yet to come.
The author would like to thank Jenny Rowland-Shea, Alan Yu, Frances Colón, Marc Jarsulic, Bill Rapp, Mat Brady, Christian Rodriguez, Julia Schroeder, Allie Cohen, and SalmonState for their contributions to this report.
* Correction, May 25, 2023: This report has been updated to accurately describe the height of one of the KSM mine dams.