Gratitude for resolution of mining threat to Skagit Headwaters, but threat of Canadian mines to American rivers remains

Gratitude for resolution of mining threat to Skagit Headwaters, but threat of Canadian mines to American rivers remains

Conservation Northwest / Jan 27, 2022 / British Columbia, Mining



January 27, 2022

Seattle, WA – U.S.-based conservation groups welcome the Jan. 19 news of a great win resolving the threat of B.C. mining in the so-called “Donut Hole” of the Upper Skagit River, that flows from British Columbia (B.C.) into Washington state. Due to sustained pressure for three years from a robust international coalition of more than 300 organizations, the prospect of mining by Imperial Metals Corp. in the Skagit headwaters is no longer a threat to the river and communities downstream. 

This announcement that Imperial Metals Corp. has relinquished its Skagit mineral claims signals the B.C. government can do the right thing with enough international pressure and financial support. However, our fight against multiple B.C. mining operations in the headwaters of shared U.S.-B.C. transboundary rivers is far from over. Binding watershed protections are needed to protect many rivers shared by B.C. and Washington, Alaska, Idaho, and Montana from polluting, under-regulated B.C. mines.

“We in Washington regard British Columbia as a great neighbor with which we share a love of nature and prosperous commerce,” said Mitch Friedman, Executive Director of Seattle-based Conservation Northwest. “But B.C. is anything but neighborly in the way they jeopardize our rivers, communities, and fish and wildlife.”

B.C. has weak, dangerous mining regulations and lacks a process through which downstream jurisdictions can give meaningful input. As a result, communities in Washington, Alaska, Idaho, and Montana have long been impacted by active and potential B.C. mine pollution flowing downstream across the international border. Many of these U.S. communities are at continued risk of future catastrophic pollution from B.C. mine tailings dams waste, which B.C.’s own experts have predicted to fail at the rate of two every ten years.

For example, the Copper Mountain Mine is only 50 miles north of the Washington border in the headwaters of the Similkameen River, the next large transboundary watershed to the east of the Skagit. It is the third-largest copper mine in Canada. It features two leaky tailings dams that are already four times the height of Imperial Metals’ Mount Polley mine waste dam that collapsed in 2014 and sent 6.6 billion gallons of contaminated mine waste into the Fraser River watershed. 

Yet, despite its size and protest from those downstream, Copper Mountain Mine plans to expand operations significantly. Communities and salmon fisheries in southeast Alaska, northern Idaho, and northwest Montana are similarly impacted and threatened by massive, poorly regulated mines in B.C. and the lack of binding watershed protections developed by all entities who share and depend on these iconic transboundary rivers.

“This underscores the power of indigenous-led conservation and management. Hopefully, the entire region will revert back to the peoples that have the knowledge and wisdom to pass this on to all future generations,” said Rob Sanderson Jr., Chair of the Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission.

“This is a milestone for the Skagit and our friends in B.C. and Washington, but Alaska has been asking for the cleanup of B.C.’s abandoned and polluting Tulsequah Chief mine in southeast Alaska’s largest wild salmon-producing river for decades, Imperial Metals Corp. is already operating in the transboundary Stikine River watershed, and the largest open-pit mine in North America is proposed just miles upstream from a U.S. national monument in the Unuk River watershed. Just like in the Skagit, taxpayers are on the hook for government pay-outs to the mining companies, i.e., cleanup at Mt. Polley and Tulsequah Chief. The B.C. system is broken, and that is why multiple tribes and nearly every municipality in southeast Alaska have recently passed resolutions calling for a ban on B.C. tailings dams upriver and a temporary pause on B.C. mine permitting along shared rivers until an international agreement is implemented,” said Jill Weitz, Director of Juneau-based Salmon Beyond Borders. 

“In Alaska, while we are thankful for success in protecting the shared waters of the Skagit, we look upstream with dismay at the runaway B.C. mine leasing and permitting system that has put downstream Alaska communities and Tribes at risk from a rapidly evolving mining pollution threat. An impending future of B.C. mega mines and risky tailings dams overhanging our shared waters demands urgent bilateral attention,” said Aaron Brakel, Inside Passage Waters Program Manager for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.

“We currently talk about transboundary watersheds as individual puzzle pieces, each with their own unique water quality and pollution issues. But if we take a step back and look at the complete puzzle, all of the pollution issues in these individual transboundary systems stem from only one source: B.C. Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Alaska are all threatened by B.C. mining practices and their pollution. We need policy changes that will work to address the pollution issues in all U.S./B.C. transboundary systems. The success in the Skagit watershed provides an important stepping stone to achieve bilateral transboundary watershed protections but we need to start thinking about these issues on a much wider scale, not individual puzzle pieces,” said Ellie Hudson-Heck, Conservation Assistant with the Idaho Conservation League. 

“A diverse coalition of anglers, Tribes, state and federal governments, businesses, and concerned downstream residents have come together to hold British Columbia’s mining industry accountable for selenium pollution entering Montana and Idaho from large coal mining operations on the Elk River in B.C.,” said Clayton Elliott, Conservation Director of Montana Trout Unlimited. “We have done so because B.C. has demonstrated time and again that they will not hold big polluters accountable for their impacts at home and downstream, which makes the news from the Skagit watershed a success for water quality for our fisheries and communities.”

“The news that an international coalition was able to effect a change in mining plans in the Skagit drainage is great news,” says Frank Szollosi, Executive Director of the Montana Wildlife Federation. “Montanans have an affinity for our British Columbia neighbors and we share many natural resources such as water, fish, wildlife, and the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. Current and historic coal mining is contributing 95 percent of the selenium to Lake Koocanusa, at rates up to 30 times higher than the Environmental Protection Agency approved standard for water quality and fish life. Westslope cutthroat populations in the Elk River have declined more than 90 percent in recent years, and other native species have been negatively impacted as well. We hope the Skagit agreement signals a new willingness to work to resolve these transboundary issues.” 




Mitch Friedman, Executive Director, Conservation Northwest, Seattle, WA (360) 319-9266

Jill Weitz, Director, Salmon Beyond Borders, Juneau, AK  (907) 957-9504

Ellie Hudson-Heck, Conservation Assistant, Idaho Conservation League, Sandpoint, ID 208-345-6933 ex 402



photo of tailings pond in Copper Mountain Mine
Tailings dam and pond, Copper Mountain Mine, southern British Columbia. Photo: Benjamin Drummond and LightHawk.