UPDATE: amended name of river from Taku to Tulsequah
Mining giant Teck Resources is contributing more than $1.5 million to support reclamation efforts at the infamous Tulsequah Chief mine in northwest B.C., which has been polluting a salmon-rich transboundary watershed that feeds into Alaska with acid rock drainage for more than six decades.
The question of who will pay the estimated $48.7 million cleanup and closure costs for the remote industrial site has long concerned conservation organizations.
The Tulsequah Chief mine was first operated in the 1950s by Cominco, later bought by Teck Resources, which eventually abandoned the mine site in 1957. In the intervening decades, numerous companies have taken over the mine, but none have been successful at resuscitating operations. The prospect of the mine reopening has delayed the site’s final closure and cleanup. While Teck has been involved in the planning process for the reclamation and closure of the remote site, the company has not, until now, contributed financially.
Nikki Skuce, director of Northern Confluence and co-founder of the BC Mining Law Reform Network, told The Narwhal she’s pleased Teck is stepping up, but added uncertainty remains about funding the full cost of reclamation activities.
According to the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation, B.C. has just $160,000 left in its Tulsequah reclamation coffers — money the province received as a reclamation bond from the mine’s most recent owner, Chieftain Metals, which attempted to establish a water treatment plant on site before going into receivership in 2016.
“It’s great to see forward movement on this [but] it’ll be interesting to see if they’ll then be on the hook for the full $50 million, or whatever that price tag ends up being,” she said in an interview.
Alaska campaigner with Rivers Without Borders, Chris Zimmer, agreed.
“It’s encouraging to see Teck step up here, but there’s still a lot to be done,” he told The Narwhal in an interview. “This is only a million and a half for work this season and the whole cleanup bill is tens of millions.”
Teck declined an interview request, but Chris Stannell, spokesperson for the mining company, told The Narwhal in an email that the company has a long history of remediating sites.
“Teck is pleased to support the province of British Columbia and the Taku River Tlingit First Nation’s interim reclamation and remediation actions at the site by voluntarily providing $1.575 million towards this work,” he wrote.
The province commissioned a long-overdue reclamation plan in 2019, which outlined several options for the mine site’s closure as well as a series of next steps to decide on a final cleanup plan for the site.
“In 2021, the province is continuing the initial actions outlined in the remediation plan, including additional bridge repairs, a LiDAR survey in support of further design and continued water monitoring efforts in collaboration with the Taku River Tlingit First Nation,” the ministry said in a statement provided to The Narwhal. The estimated cost of the work planned for this year is $1.76 million.
As for whether Teck will be held financially liable for the full costs of reclamation, Skuce noted that under B.C.’s Environmental Management Act, the former owner of a contaminated site should be held responsible for remediation. Skuce said the public shouldn’t have to wait for a company to volunteer cleanup funds as an act of goodwill.
“It sort of seems voluntary, but at the same time it is also kind of the rule,” she said of Teck’s contribution. “Technically, it’s what should happen.”
Although the Tulsequah Chief mine has been leaking contaminants into the Tulsequah River, a tributary of the salmon-bearing Taku River, which empties into the Pacific Ocean near Juneau, Alaska, since the 1950s, the province did not start taking action to clean up the site until the mid-2010s after facing pressure from stakeholders on both sides of the border.
But plans to clean up the remote site have been hampered by legal proceedings for the past five years. Chieftain Metals purchased the property in 2010 on the condition it would find a solution to the persistent pollution issues before commencing operations. When Chieftain failed to address the contamination and filed for bankruptcy in 2016, the company’s largest creditor, West Face Capital, initiated a receivership process in an attempt to recoup some of its $26 million losses.
Last year, the Ontario Superior Court discharged Chieftain Metals but granted West Face, a Toronto-based investment company, a two-year extension to try to find a buyer for the site — a development that frustrated many stakeholders.
“B.C. is apparently taking a kind of ‘wait and see’ approach in regards to the August 2022 deadline imposed by the bankruptcy court,” Zimmer wrote in an email to The Narwhal. “In other words, B.C. doesn’t seem willing to do much except a few studies in advance of that deadline.”
The court’s decision put B.C. in an awkward position: if the province successfully addresses the contamination issues, the property would be more attractive to a potential buyer looking to reopen operations at the site.
To address this contingency, B.C. set up a lien on the mine and its associated mineral titles, which means any future buyer of the site would have to pay the province for remediation costs undertaken by the province.
When the Ontario court’s extension expires, Chieftain Metals can be officially dissolved as a company and the province will be free to move forward with its final closure plans.
The mine still has numerous active permits with the province, including an environmental assessment certificate, according to receivership documents.
In response to questions about why B.C. isn’t pulling those permits, the ministry explained its priority is working on the reclamation plans.
“Our focus at the moment is on the process of addressing current environmental conditions at the site,” the ministry said.
There are also 12 remaining mineral tenures on the site, which expire at the end of 2022.
“The Chief Gold Commissioner established a no-staking reserve under the Mineral Tenure Act over the Tulsequah Mine area in 2017,” the ministry wrote. “As long as the no-staking reserve remains in place, mineral rights cannot be re-staked should they forfeit or return to the Crown.”
Skuce said all of this bodes well, but added she hopes the province will be ready to accelerate its work plans on the site next year.
“What we’re hoping for is that by this time next year … Teck has stepped up further and there’s a clear plan, in agreement with the Taku River Tlingit First Nation, of which reclamation option they have chosen to do, so that by the time … that court date expires, work happens,” Skuce said.
She explained that the remoteness of the site and the nature of the weather in the region means there is a very short window of opportunity to complete the necessary work.
“Looking towards that August  deadline, there should be a pretty clear path forward so that it’s shovel-ready.”
Meanwhile, just across the Tulsequah River, plans are currently underway to assess the viability of restarting operations at the New Polaris gold mine. According to a Rivers Without Borders report, Canagold is currently ramping up its exploratory work as gold prices continue to climb.
“Canagold has received a multi-year exploration permit from the B.C. Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation to conduct this exploration,” the report said. “The mine plan calls for cyanide to extract gold from a deposit rich in arsenic, which means tailings will likely have high levels of arsenic and cyanide.”
In its submission to the Ontario court last year regarding the Tulsequah mine, the Taku River Tlingit First Nation said it is working with B.C. to permanently protect the area, noting it “has taken steps to designate the Tulsequah Valley as an Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area.” The nation could not be reached for comment.
Zimmer said granting permits to Canagold for its exploratory work at New Polaris while simultaneously working to clean up Tulsequah Chief sends mixed messages.
“You’ve got New Polaris right on the edge of the no-staking reserve, literally right across the river,” he said. “If the vision is not to have mining in the valley, which is certainly our vision, what do we do with New Polaris?”
The ministry of mines told The Narwhal there are no known pollution issues at New Polaris and said Canagold would require regulatory approval before commencing operations.
“The Polaris Taku Mine was a narrow vein gold mine and operated from 1938 to 1942, and from 1946 to closure in 1951,” the ministry said in a statement. “Little historic information exists on the mine.”
Matt Simmons, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Narwhal