Tribes, fishermen warn about Canadian mines

KING 5's Alison Morrow reports.

For 43 years, the waters of southeast Alaska have called to Seattle fisherman Pete Knutson. He's worried the bountiful waters are facing a danger of magnitude never seen before.

"People say, 'The oceans are dying.' Well, they're not dying everywhere on the planet," he said.

Knutson spends his summers where they're alive catching wild salmon for Loki Fish Company, which he and his wife started decades ago. Their fish is well-known at farmers markets around Seattle.

Loki harvests between 150 and 200,000 pounds of salmon every year, but Knutson's eye is focused on waters far upstream.

"It's a death of a thousand cuts," he explained. "That's how salmon get eliminated."

There is a mining boom in British Columbia right now near the Alaskan border, with ten developing mines, many harvesting copper and gold.

They're at the headwaters of rivers that feed into the open waters around southeast Alaska.

"We feel that our livelihoods, our salmon, our clean water, our culture, are at risk from these large scale mines," Heather Hardcastle said.

Hardcastle commercially fishes salmon in Alaska, and remembers a disaster from late last year. The Mount Polley mine's design failure and subsequent dam breach flooded acres of waterways with mining waste and contaminants.

It's often called one of Canada's worst environmental disasters. First Nations people in the area say their native way of life no longer includes salmon.

"To hear about that (pause) that kind of experience is very troubling and unsettling," Jennifer Hanlon said.

Hanlon is an environmental specialist with the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes. She and other activists want a voice regulating and inspecting the new mines. Alaska Lt. Governor Byron Mallott is one of them. He met with British Columbia government leaders this week and flew over the Mt. Polley site Wednesday.

"And how somber and serious the room became when Mount Polley was mentioned," he said. "It gave me a sense of the gravity and importance you attach to making sure something like this never happens again."

But could it happen again?

British Columbia's environment minister says they are committed to making sure it doesn't.

The owner of the Mount Polley mine, Imperial Metals, did not return KING 5's repeated calls for comment. They are the first to open a new mine upstream from where Knutson fishes.

"If you can imagine putting battery acid into a salmon stream, that's what these mines are all about," Knutson said.

He believes it would kill business for many Seattle fishing companies. They make up more than 10% of southeast Alaska's salmon permits.

"It's going to have an impact on the availability of wild salmon," Knutson said. "Everybody's concerned about this."


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