Canadian Mine Causes Stir in Alaska
Proposal to strip mountaintop threatens to disrupt a way of life and unspoiled wilderness. WHAT COST MINING?
HAINES, ALASKA — AS Joe Hotch readies his little wooden red-and-white boat for the opening of the salmon runs one rainy Sunday morning, he wonders about the future of the inlet that provides his livelihood, and the rivers and streams that course through of his ancestral home. Plans to develop a huge open-pit copper mine about 70 miles northwest of the Haines harbor, upstream from the glacier-fed waters that supply the fisheries, have cast doubt over the future, says Mr. Hotch, a weathered commercial fisherman with a bristly salt-and-pepper crew cut.
Hotch is chairman of the 150-member Klukwan Indian Council. He voices concern that the project will be unaffected by his protests and those of other Alaskans because the mine site is across the border in British Columbia.
``It's not our mine, so we have no power,'' he says.
Geddes Resources Ltd., with offices in Toronto and Vancouver, plans to slice the top off 6,500-foot Windy Craggy Peak to create one of North America's biggest copper mines.
The Windy Craggy deposit, expected to provide some 50 years of production, includes nearly 7 billion pounds of copper, more than 1 million ounces of gold, 20 million ounces of silver, and 290 million pounds of cobalt - reserves for up to 50 years of production, the company says.
Geddes sank $33.7 million (Canadian) into exploration through 1989 and is spending at least $12 million (Canadian) this year; the site already has an airstrip, camp, mine tunnels, and an eight-mile road plowed on a glacier.
``It's a sight to see,'' says Nancy Deschu, an Anchorage-based hydrologist with the National Park Service, who toured the site in June. ``I don't think the US would permit that much activity without going through an environmental study.''
The project has prompted an unprecedented joint review by Alaska, US, Canadian, and British Columbia provincial officials. Agencies from the four governments just finished reviewing Geddes's first draft of its project plan, and many are displeased.
Environment Canada, the nation's top environmental agency, citing unresolved questions about acid drainage, in June ordered the company to rewrite its mining plan. That decision has delayed the development for a year to 1995, Geddes president Gerald Harper said.
Alaska officials, who chided Geddes for devoting only a few lines of its five-volume draft plan to the project's effects on the state, said the mine would jeopardize valuable commercial fisheries based in the Alaskan towns of Haines and Yakutat.
State officials say Geddes plans to dump waste rock on glaciers - a technique the company admits is untested - and to build a tailings dam in Canada's most seismically active area that could poison the rivers and creeks that run into Alaska.
Trucking ore through Haines for shipment to Asia, the Alaskan officials say, would endanger the world's largest concentration of bald eagles, which gathers each fall in the Chilkat Valley Eagle Preserve to feast on salmon runs.
The Tatshenshini River is a world-famous rafting destination that runs just south of the mine site and in part through Glacier Bay National Monument. Rafting tour guides say rumbling ore trucks and the road that Geddes plans to build along the river banks would degrade the wilderness experience there.
``The whole reason that people come from all over the world to raft it is that it's one of the most beautiful, most pristine, untouched wilderness systems that they can get into,'' said Bart Henderson, owner of a Haines river-rafting company. ``Man needs wilderness, even if he never goes out there. He needs to know that it's there.''
Some of the harshest criticism comes from US Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service officials, who say no technology exists to make the Windy Craggy mine anything but an environmental disaster with effects that will last into perpetuity.
But some Alaskans welcome the Windy Craggy mine as a potential boon, even though the Geddes has said almost all of the economic benefits would go to Canadians. A mine of that magnitude just over the border would stimulate Alaskan projects, supporters say.
``Haines really doesn't have a future in the wilderness end of it,'' says Ray Rose, a retired heavy-machinery operator in Haines who has formed a pro-mine group that's soliciting contributions from Geddes and other organizations.
The Windy Craggy battle is actually just part of a long war over the so-called ``Haines Triangle,'' the British Columbia panhandle that lies between Alaska and the Yukon Territory.
Canadian environmentalists and developers have argued long and bitterly over the fate of the region - now a sea of undeveloped mountains and glaciers.
To environmentalists, the triangle is the missing link that would bind Alaska's Glacier Bay and Wrangell-St. Elias National Parks with the Yukon's Kluane National Park to create the world's largest, and perhaps most spectacular, protected wilderness.
But developers see a promising source of mineral wealth for mining-dependent British Columbia and oft-struggling western Canada.
Public meetings on the issue in Alaska and British Columbia have pitted activists dressed as animals and, in one case, as a tree, against investors who have staked millions on the area's development.
Mr. Harper says that the Haines Triangle could rival Quebec's Noranda mining district and acknowledges that Windy Craggy would lead to other development.
``If Windy Craggy gets established as a mine, then it could very well be the first of a group of two, three, four, maybe even five mines,'' he says.
Geddes officials concede they might develop other deposits on its claims into additional mines.
Other companies have explored gypsum deposits as well as the copper, zinc, gold, and silver that is likely to surround the Windy Craggy deposit, according to Dave Lefebure, district geologist for northwestern British Columbia.
``These type of deposits usually occur in multiple deposits. You can almost think of them like a school of whales - if there's one there, you know there's going to be others there,'' he says.
From Mr. Lefebure's Smithers office of the provincial Bureau of Mines, there is no end in sight to the war for the Haines Triangle.
``There are so many people who are interested in that area and have a different vision of the way it should go,'' he says.