Oxidized rock colors a valley where one of Seabridge Gold’s KSM project’s open pit mines will be dug. (Ed Schoenfeld/ CoastAlaska News)
Oxidized rock colors a valley where one of Seabridge Gold’s KSM project’s open pit mines would be dug about 20 miles northeast of the international boundary. (File photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska)

Canadian developers behind a proposed massive metals mine 20 miles from the border seek another permit extension from B.C. regulators. If it’s built, the Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell mine would be larger than the proposed Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay.

Seabridge Gold had hoped to be mining copper, gold and other metals by now. The KSM mine received approvals in 2014 on the condition that it break ground within five years.

Two years ago it received an extension giving it until 2024 to start work. Now, citing the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s asked for another two years after that.

But mine critics in Canada say it’s the mining company’s failure to attract a partner, not the virus, that’s stalled development.

“This is a fairly Junior company,” said Nikki Skuce, executive director of Northern Confluence, a Canadian conservation group critical of B.C. mining practices. “So they’re needing to find a big buyer — and the price tag is huge.”

The Smithers, B.C.-based environmental organization was among nearly a dozen to urge provincial regulators to hold the line and not grant the company more time.

She says B.C. authorities — similar to Alaska — have granted mine companies waivers to keep working as essential industries amidst the pandemic. 

“Maybe it costs more, and it was a bit more challenging, but we know that work did go underway this summer, despite the pandemic,” she said.

The KSM project's operational phase mine site layout includes pits to access ore, rock storage, a dam and a water treatment plant. (Courtesy KSM environmental assessment certificate application)
At the end of its 52-year lifespan, KSM’s tailings facilities would hold back about 2.5 billion tons of liquid mine waste. (Graphic courtesy of Seabridge Gold)

The tailings storage facility would include dams holding back liquid mine waste. At its highest — more than 780 feet — there are some risks and liabilities the 2014 tailings spill at Mount Polley

At the end of its 52-year lifespan, its dams would be designed to hold back 2.5 billions of tons of liquid mine waste.

I imagine there’s some risk aversion from some of the bigger players,” Skuce added.

Tribes, fishermen wary of development up the Unuk River watershed

Southeast Alaska fishermen have long been wary of transboundary mining because of potential impacts on habitat on salmon producing rivers and streams.

“The KSM mine is up the Unuk River and that is one of them that appears on the stocks of concern list,” said Amy Daugherty, executive director of Alaska Trollers Association in Juneau.

Stocks of concern are under-performing rivers where state biologists dial back fishing opportunities to conserve the run.

“Having low escapement year after year and having development on that very same river — it can potentially shut us down,” Daugherty said.

Southeast Alaska and B.C. First Nation tribes have been monitoring mines being developed in B.C.’s so-called Golden Triangle of mining projects on Southeast Alaska’s doorstep.

“We all need to pay attention to what’s going on in the Unuk River watershed,” Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission Chair Rob Sanderson Jr. said by phone. He said tribes have been doing the heavy lifting on this issue while local and state leaders largely remain on the sidelines.

“I have lost all faith in the state of Alaska, and the Dunleavy administration,” he added.

Sanderson says Southeast tribes are concerned about the scale of the tailing dams “well over 600 feet high” because if there’s any problem, “it’s going to affect everything in our Southeast Alaska waterways, especially in the southern Southeast waterways.”

British Columbia mines are slated to be built close to transboundary rivers. That worries some candidates for the Legislature.
KSM would be the largest of the Golden Triangle mines developed in the transboundary watershed.

Alaska state regulators mum on KSM’s permit extension request

In 2014, state regulators in Alaska registered concerns over potential impacts to fish habitat and water quality in the Unuk River watershed. In 2017, state officials followed up with a fact-finding mission over the border which included a flyover of KSM and meeting with mine executives and regulators.

But this month during a 30-day comment, the Dunleavy administration opted not to weigh-in. State regulators say they reasoned a permit extension wouldn’t alter the project.

(On Friday, after this article was published, DNR released details of a previously unannounced follow-up trip in 2019 to the site of the proposed KSM mine.)

Activists say that’s a missed opportunity to affirm the state’s interest in the project.

“This inaction from the state of Alaska is doing a disservice to Alaska and Alaskans,” said Jill Weitz, director of Salmon Beyond Borders, a conservation group focused on transboundary resource politics.

Weitz says if the extension is granted it’d potentially allow the mine to be developed using a 12-year-old analysis.

“We maintain that the state of Alaska, the Dunleavy administration should join our congressional delegation and the push for international binding solutions to this very much international problem,” she said.

Alaska Department of Natural Resource’s top mine official Kyle Moselle explained the state’s agency’s reasoning by email.

“The outcome of the (environmental assessment office’s) review will not change the approved project description for KSM, nor affect the potential environmental impacts from the project that were evaluated during the provincial and federal Canadian environmental assessment processes, in which the state of Alaska engaged,” he wrote.

The permit extension received two comments in favor. One was an anonymous email. The other came from a local mine consultant who’s done work in the past for Seabridge Gold on a nearby mine. The latter declined an interview request.

Toronto-based mine developer responds to critics

Seabridge Gold company maintains the KSM mine can and will be built safely and responsibly, bringing jobs to the sparsely populated area of northwest B.C.

Seabridge Gold released a two-page statement arguing that the tailings facility would not impact water quality on the Alaska side of the border.

“For Seabridge Gold, protection of the environment in both Canada and in the U.S., is a guiding principle behind the design of the KSM Project,” wrote senior executive R. Brent Murphy. “The company has put the KSM project through extensive environmental and technical evaluations by independent experts to ensure its operation will not cause harm to the surrounding environment, including waterways and fish, and has worked closely with all stakeholders, including Alaskans, to ensure that their concerns were acknowledged and addressed throughout the environmental assessment review.”

In a follow up statement on Friday, Murphy added that regulators in Canada had also agreed that KSM would not affect water quality in Alaska waters.

“Otherwise Seabridge would not have received its environmental approvals,” he wrote.

Austin Williams of Trout Unlimited in Anchorage says it’s understandable that British Columbia seeks to develop its mineral resources. But he says it needs to be done a way, “that if something goes wrong with the transboundary mines, that Alaskans aren’t stuck paying the price.”

B.C.’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy says Seabridge Gold will be required to respond to the written comments. It says only then will it fully consider the Toronto-based mining company’s request to further extend its permit through 2026.

If the ministry rejects the permit extension, Seabridge Gold still has until the summer of 2024 to find a partner and get started. Otherwise, it’d be back to the drawing board; its permit will have expired.   

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include portions of a follow up statement by Seabridge Gold to clarify that Canadian regulators have determined the KSM mine would not impact water quality in Alaska waters. It also corrects an oversimplification of the terms sought by Seabridge Gold to find a development partner.