The Resilience of the Taku River Ecosystem to Mining Impacts

The Taku River ecosystem supports a vital fishery to many individuals and user groups. It is a transboundary river, with its headwaters in British Columbia, Canada, and is therefore subject to the Pacific Salmon Treaty. There are a large number of potential mines, both along the Taku River or its tributaries
and their drainage areas. Chieftain Metals Corporation plans to revive the Tulsequah and Big Bull mines. This construction poses risk to the drainage, associated fisheries, and coastal communities of the river.

Abstract

The Taku River ecosystem supports a vital fishery to many individuals and user groups. It is a transboundary river, with its headwaters in British Columbia, Canada, and is therefore subject to the Pacific Salmon Treaty. There are a large number of potential mines, both along the Taku River or its tributaries and their drainage areas. Chieftain Metals Corporation plans to revive the Tulsequah and Big Bull mines. This construction poses risk to the drainage, associated fisheries, and coastal communities of the river. The Taku supports 21 fish species, including five species of commercially and socially vital Pacific salmon. Habitat degradation and detriment affecting water quality is of primary concern. Salmon are vital to the local economy, and to the resilience of the ecosystem. We propose the establishment of a baseline for the Taku River and its tributaries so changes may be monitored. Second, we propose solutions to roadway deterioration from new constructed roads in the area as well as monitoring of water quality related problems. Finally, we also explore the avenues through which communities and interested parties may be involved in monitoring the Taku River water quality and populations of key indicator species, including aquatic insects with the common goal of socioeconomic and physical resilience in mind. User groups must work constructively toward solutions that preserve the Taku River for future generations, while allowing for the responsible extraction of natural resources.

Introduction

Resilience is often defined in one of two ways: “the ability of a biological system to return to equilibrium after a perturbation” or the ability of an ecosystem to absorb change (Waples et al., 2009). Salmon (Oncorhynchus spp.), are specifically sensitive to habitat loss and degradation, just two of the risks related to mining activity (Chambers et al., 2012). Mining poses both acute and chronic issues to surrounding ecosystems (Weber Scannell, 2012). We will examine the Taku River (TR) ecosystem (composed of tributaries that end in Taku Inlet, connecting to the Pacific Ocean as a whole), for both of the above definitions of resilience to nearby mining and discuss measures to increase resilience. Socioeconomic resilience is also of importance when considering the TR.

Historically and currently, mining and fishing have been important economic engines for Southeast Alaska (SEAK) and British Columbia, Canada (Weber Scannell, 2012). In past years, Pacific salmon caught in Taku Inlet as part of the driftnet fishery were valued at 6 million USD (Table 1) (McDowell Group, 2004). The TR fisheries and ecosystem should be assessed for resilience not only because of the socioeconomic factors associated with the river, but also because of the challenges of managing and protecting transboundary rivers. The TR is one of three in SEAK. The TR is especially important because it provides a large amount of habitat for many organisms, and most particularly in the context of this paper, significant habitat for Pacific salmon production. Regulatory concerns are caused in light of increased large scale development within the drainage; local economies of surrounding towns depend on the river (McDowell Group, 2004). The TR is important for both mineral and food resources; these rich resources provide income and a way of life for a diverse set of groups.

Currently, several mines along the TR system and other waterways are required to follow only those regulations set by federal and provincial lawmakers of Canada. The potential damage from these mines includes leakage from abandoned mines, mass leakage incidents, cumulative impacts from regular transport of both workers and mining products to and from worksites, and damage from mining waste. The impacts of mining could devastate the surrounding, valuable ecosystem as outlined below.

In this paper, we describe the ecosystem of the TR and potential impacts to the TR by humans via mining efforts. We then show the relation between mines and fish, and compare the economic values of each. We draw comparisons to mining damages worldwide. Finally, we discuss the resilience of the ecosystem and examine potential precautions in the context of the transboundary nature of the river and propose several solutions including planting vegetation and proper water treatment.

Taku River Ecosystem

The SEAK marine ecosystem contains a variety of habitats heavily influenced by tidal action. It is a rugged mix of fjords, containing glaciers and mountainous coasts; the “oceanographic processes in Southeast Alaska result… [in a] rich and diverse assemblage of upper trophic levels” (Weingartner et al., 2008). Glaciers feed the TR system in BC, which junctions with several rivers including the Tulsequah River, and eventually drains into the Taku Inlet (Figure 1) (McDowell Group, 2004). The land surrounding the watershed is part of the Taku River Tlingit First Nation (TRTFN) territory. Because of its international location, the TR is subject to the Pacific Salmon Treaty (PST) rather than a single country, state or providence’s jurisdiction. The Tulsequah-Taku river junction is located 31 km from the location at which the TR crosses the US-Canada border (Weber Scannell, 2012). Important chinook (O. tshawytscha) and other salmon stocks come through the TR to spawn or leave for the ocean (Nichols, personal communication, 2015).

The TR contains three main zones: riparian, estuary and inlet. Riparian zones are the diverse biological communities on the shores of streams (Gregory et al., 1991). According to Jeff Nichols, of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the Taku Estuary, where the TR mixes with the ocean, runs from Copper Point to Jaw Point and has varying salinity based on tides and freshwater input (Nichols, personal comm., 2015). Taku Inlet is home to a more stable community of aquatic animals, and hosts the largest commercial fishery on the SEAK portion of the TR (Nichols, personal communication, 2015; McDowell group, 2004).

Figure 1. Map of the Taku River. All three major historical mines are shown on this map, though only the Tulsequah Chief Mine and Big Bull Mine are under review for revival.

Salmon in the Taku River

The TR is home to over 21 fish species, including salmon whose anadromous migration pattern makes them an especially important species to the ecosystem (Weber Scannell, 2012). Along their migration path, salmon collect nutrients from salt water, which they recycle back into the TR ecosystem when they spawn and decompose. This cycle provides marine nutrients otherwise not available to the TR ecosystem, including the terrestrial environment (Baker et al., 2011). Salmon are a keystone species to this region for several reasons, meaning they are important economically and environmentally. They are widespread and represent a diverse set of species and life histories; further, they are sensitive to environmental changes so are often used in long-term ecosystem assessments (Hyatt and Godbouts, 2000). This classifies them as important environmentally. In addition, they contribute to local economies, and are culturally valued (Hyatt and Godbout, 2000). If a drop in the salmon population did occur, it would likely harm the local economy and damage surrounding food webs and the economic status of communities built around the TR’s resources (McDowell group, 2004; Chambers et al., 2012).

Chinook salmon are an economically significant species in the TR because of their high market value (Kelley, personal communication, October 20, 2015). Other salmon have varying levels of value but often account for a larger population in the TR. Coho (O. kisutch), sockeye (O. nerka), and chum salmon (O. keta) represent main components of the fishery (McDowell Group, 2004). More information on salmon biology and spawning of salmonids can be found in Groot and Margolis (1991). Chum populations have declined significantly over the past thirty years (Andel, 2010), suggesting they would suffer more than other species if their habitat were to be destroyed, as they already show lowered populations (Nichols, personal communication, October 21, 2015).

Salmon preferentially spawn on gravel bottoms, where oxygen can reach eggs and juvenile fish. Roadway and marine traffic or construction activity causes finer sediment to accumulate that then obstructs oxygen transport to eggs (Nichols, personal communication, October 21, 2015). Some communities of salmon spawn near the Tulsequah and TR’s junction, and many spawn upstream of this junction (Weber Scannell, 2012). Mining has the potential to alter salmon habitats or affect the ability of salmon to reach their spawning grounds, upsetting the location or timing of salmon spawning, and subsequent effects for the TR food web (Weber Scannell, 2012; Korstch et al., 2015).

The importance of salmon is increased when the terrestrial ecosystem is considered as well. Salmon are major components in the nitrogen cycle, cycling nutrients to terrestrial organism and plants as well as marine organisms. This means that the socioeconomic factors dependent on the terrestrial ecosystem are involved with salmon.

Aquatic Insects of the Taku River

Some of the main food sources for juvenile salmon are small, aquatic insects such as mayflies (ephemeroptera), stoneflies (plecoptera), and caddisflies (tricoptera), often referred to as EPTs (Nichols, personal communication, October 21, 2015). These species are very sensitive to pollution and even minimal water quality changes, like those of pH and dissolved oxygen (Environmental Protection Agency [EPA], 2012). They show both acute and chronic pollution effects, and the health and population of these species is representative of the water quality, allowing them to be used as indicator species of lowered water quality (EPA, 2012).

Mining along the Taku River

The BC area had a small part in the Klondike gold rush, before becoming the home of several larger mines in the late 1930s (Figure 1) (Weber Scannell, 2012). During the gold rush, mines mainly focused on gold, but silver, copper, lead, zinc and cadmium are found in the area in scattered deposits as well (Weber Scannell, 2012). Mining companies have looked into reopening these main mines numerous times. In 2010, Chieftain Metals Corporation of Canada became interested in and obtained the necessary permits from the Canadian government to start on the path toward reopening the Big Bull and Tulsequah Chief mines (Weber Scannell, 2012). Chieftain Metals Corporation (2015) plans to mine for gold, copper, lead and zinc.

Socioeconomic Issues

Many groups use fish and land resources around the TR and Tulsequah rivers, including commercial fishermen, First Nations, Alaska Native people, and recreational users. The TR’s transboundary nature has made it difficult to find the balance between the aforementioned user groups, and United States-Canada co-management programs have attempted to prevent each group from overusing the TR’s resources. Polarized opinions between commercial fisheries, mining companies and indigenous groups have further complicated management (Hawley et al., 2004). The residents of Atlin, British Columbia and Juneau use the TR and surrounding land for recreational and cultural activities as well as commercial ones (McDowell Group, 2004). Table 1 shows the economic values for the Taku River, and estimated values of mining according to Chieftain Metals Corporation (2015).

Table 1.

The estimated annual value of the TR and the mines of surrounding areas

Item     

Estimated Value (US$)

Taku River Commercial Fisheries (BC and US) 6 million
Taku River Recreational Use (Lodging and tourism)  19 million
Taku River Land Taxes   300,000
Mining products, from CMC website  13-19.2 million

Identifying and Mitigating Potential Impacts

Threats, both acute and chronic, of mining include acid rock drainage, leakage, and tailings spills. Examination of historical situations provides insight to possible mining impacts (Byrn et al., 2015; Weber Scannell, 2012). Acid rock drainage damage is defined by “low pH and high concentrations of heavy metals” (Akcil and Koldas, 2004). Acid rock drainage is the most damaging chronic impact to the TR from mines (Weber Scannell, 2012). Gold and copper mining processes increase the risk of acid rock drainage as they expose sulfide-bearing minerals to water and oxygen (Akcil and Koldas, 2004). Chambers et al. (2012) cites acid rock drainage as one of the largest chronic issues because it alters the environment drastically, lowering the pH of water. If the pH of water was lowered, salmon and EPTs in the area would likely be put under a large amount of stress, causing a potential drop in population (Chambers et al., 2012). Given salmon’s socioeconomic and ecological importance, a drop in the salmon population would both harm the local economy and damage surrounding food webs and the economic status of communities built around the TR’s resources (McDowell group, 2004; Chambers et al., 2012). The ecosystem and economy would be unlikely to return to equilibrium, as it could take years for the area to recover if the any mine were to experience such a spill (Chambers et al., 2012).

In addition to acid rock drainage, mine leakage, consisting of small, long-term releases, is a chronic issue threatening ecosystems. Mine leakage often goes untracked as this leakage occurs from older, abandoned mines (Finley, 2015). Almost 15 tons of heavy metals leach into waterways connected to the Tulsequah each year, the majority of this is from historic closed mines in the area (Weber Scannell, 2012).

Chieftain Metals Corporation plans to transport employees, construction materials, waste, and other mine necessities to and from the mine by aircraft or land pipeline (in the case of mine waste), with the mine’s product being barged from the mine site to the junction of the Tulsequah and Taku Rivers (Chieftain Metals Corporation, 2015). The new roadway, along with the barging from the mine, has the potential to disrupt the TR ecosystem. Storms often cause roadways to deteriorate, delivering sediment to nearby streams where it can disturb marine organisms. Salmon are particularly disturbed by this foreign sediment because it prevents water from moving through gravel to transport oxygen to eggs and does not allow for healthy development of embryos (Nichols, personal communication, October 21, 2015).

The Mount Polley mine tailings spill in British Columbia represents one extreme example of sedimentation damage. Tailings from the spill “may reside in the regional soils and sediments for 1000s of years serving as a secondary source of pollution” (Byrne et al., 2015). Tailings spills can displace salmon populations and reduce fish habitat (Bryne et al., 2015). The small aquatic insects salmon normally feed on would also be affected. After a tailings spill, it can take hundreds of years for the ecosystem to recover (Byrne et al., 2015). Looking to the second definition of resilience (see introduction), we see once again salmon are only minimally adaptable to change, whether chronic or acute. They would likely be unable to absorb environmental changes without disrupting the ecosystem as they, along with their prey, are highly sensitive to minor disturbances (Chambers et al., 2012; EPA, 2012).

Although such a devastating tailings spill is less likely to happen, it poses a large threat to the ecosystem as it results in secondary pollution that would continue to damage the ecosystem for many years and increase the time it takes for the ecosystem to return to equilibrium (Byrn et al., 2015). However, the diverse set of salmon life histories could mitigate this time, as other salmon could take the place of those whose populations are depleted (Nichols, personal communication, October 21, 2015).

All of the minerals that the mines will focus on are heavy metals, which are highly toxic (Duruibe et al, 2007). Heavy metals are ingested by marine organisms and absorbed in the digestive tract (Bryan, 1971). Chronic heavy metal toxicity can cause fish to undergo a series of morphological changes such as increase in fatty organs, slowed development, and enzyme deformation (Byan, 1997). These changes often result in inhibitory effects, including reduced feeding, and delayed mating that usually results in death (Bryan, 1997).

One of the largest concerns for many mines is roadway sediment draining into waterways after storms. EPTs are sensitive to excess pollutants and increased solubility; therefore they will likely be the first of the ecosystem’s organisms to die with subsequent impacts to all that prey upon them (EPA, 2012). As seen in other marine food webs, when prey dies or moves, the whole ecosystem’s food web is destroyed or, at minimum, the web is dramatically altered (Korstch et al., 2015).

Implementing Potential Solutions

As a sovereign nation, only Canada can regulate the mines within British Columbia, though the United States can make suggestions as to what the mines do. The United States and Canada, along with Chieftain Metals Corporation can gather information before the mine is open; this is important as it establishes the ecosystem’s baseline measurements so the current ecosystem is maintained (Nichols, personal communication, 2015). Both baseline and ongoing testing should be done according to United States and Canadian government policy, with specific reference to pH, dissolved oxygen, turbidity, amount of sediment in the water, and temperature changes. Metal ions often adhere to sediment particles, making sediment sampling necessary as well. Because of changing conditions, averages must be established over several years of testing. After the mine is open, it will be important to minimize and measure damage to the ecosystem. Any abnormal changes should be cause for concern, as should any data gathered outside Department of Environmental Conservation standards set statewide. Testing should be conducted at multiple locations in surrounding waterways, both during and after mine operation, as some changes will not be apparent until long after the mine is closed (Nichols, personal communication, October 21, 2015). Aquatic insects should be monitored. If ecosystem parameters change from the baseline, new mining processes may need to be put in place. There has been little consistent testing in this area with relation to mining activities (Weber Scannell, 2012). In Alaska, mines are required to determine baseline ecosystem parameters and demonstrate financial stability in case of emergency, so they can pay for damages (Alaska Department of Natural Resources, 2015). To gain necessary permits, mines must demonstrate the creation of a baseline (Alaska Department of Natural Resources, 2015).

Mining presents multiple potential sources of habitat degradation. Roadway erosion, a pollutant, can be minimized by two methods that are commonly used: placing an impermeable cloth under paved roadways to prevent shifts or displacement and planting grass as “buffer strips” to provide a barrier between roads and water bodies (Morschel, 2010). While the latter was noted to work in southern France by Morschel (2010), the ecosystem and climate conditions in the TR may present challenges to this approach. Instead, more resilient members of the same genus or low bush style plants that are readily found in the Taku region may be similar enough to be effective. Such plants include willows (Salix spp.) and alders (Alnus spp.), which place their roots quickly and can be used to stabilize loose soil (Nichols, personal communication, October 21, 2015). Mine operators can reduce habitat degradation by planting these species along roadways that may erode into the TR.

A large source of potential pollution comes from insufficient processing of water used in mining. Kevin Epps of the Coeur Mines indicated that many technological advances have been made in treatmentfor mining wastewater (Epps, personal communication, October 25, 2015). One water treatment method involves precipitating toxic metals and neutralizing pH; bacteria can be added as to raise pH in an acidic environment (Akcil and Koldas 2004). Worldwide, mines have found different ways of limiting their water pollution. Several methods for controlling the amount of waste include: creating drainage pathways, treating drainage water, disposing of drainage water during high water movement periods, and wetland creation (Banks et al., 1997). Chieftain Metals Corporation wishes to use small man-made ponds to dispose of tailings, the idea being that water would evaporate off, however, in SEAK’s temperate environment, there is high risk of overspill from these ponds (Schoenfeld, 2015).

A decline in salmon populations would represent a threat to commercial fishermen, although moving fishing efforts to other areas such as Lynn Canal that focus on other salmon stocks and/or hatchery fish might mitigate some of the economic damage. Some would suggest that hatchery fish simply be released fish into the TR, though this poses multiple issues such as no hatcheries are currently using TR salmon stocks (Kelley, personal communication, October 20, 2015; Nichols, personal communication, October 21, 2015). We do not recommend transplanting DIPAC-Juneau hatchery fish in order to mitigate economic or population losses.

Overall, it is important to consider the multiple methods of mine drainage purification and prevent river, estuary, inlet, and ocean pollution while balancing all these factors with the financial burden of preventive efforts.

Community Involvement

Communities on both sides of the border are involved in ensuring the protection of salmon, making collaboration between communities and governments difficult. The United States and Canada should continue to have regular conversations about conservation through the Pacific Salmon Treaty, which is currently concerned with managing salmon populations in transboundary rivers. According to past treaty member and current Director of Fisheries at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, mining is often an issue discussed at these meetings (Scott Kelley, personal communication, October 20, 2015). The Pacific Salmon Treaty also has language centered on water quality, which provides leverage in controlling mines. Concerned community members and gillnetters have the opportunity to communicate at these joint meetings and call for change. They can influence national policies and ultimately change the way mines are run.

Recently, Alaska Lieutenant Governor Byron Mallott met with British Columbia officials and created a draft agreement about the new mines and concern for Alaskan waters, however this agreement is not legally binding remains active only if both governments involved maintain their agreement (Schoenfeld, 2015). A legally binding agreement would be much more powerful in controlling mines, though at this point the United State’s State Department’s refusal to become involved precludes this possibility.

Another avenue through which the community can help preserve their ecosystem is through citizen science. Because water sampling often is left to government agencies because of financial burden, we suggest concerned citizens of both Alaska and Canada become involved. Citizen science is a way for individual community members who are concerned with the TR’s well-being to take part in the monitoring process. The first step in this direction involves a meeting of community organizations on both sides of the border. At this meeting, a board should be appointed of delegates from both sides of the border to oversee the citizen monitoring program. Once appointed, the board would make guidelines, as well as commission the creation of a website through which data may be submitted. To join, individuals may contact the program and receive equipment and an online training seminar. After the seminar, each must pass a certification test. From then on, the certified members would take weekly water samples to check for pH, dissolved oxygen, temperature, and heavy metal toxicity. In addition to water testing, operatives would also assess aquatic insect diversity and condition. If any deviations from the baseline are discovered, the information would be submitted to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game or Fisheries and Oceans Canada, its Canadian equivalent, for further investigation. This would increase data and ability to respond as well as reduce costs to the government or any particular user group including mines.

Preparedness

Mining operations have complex interactions with their surrounding ecosystem. It is nearly impossible to foresee every issue that the mines could cause, however, with solid baseline measures in place and the community and user groups involved, the TR would be more prepared for any damages the mine may cause. The community involvement noted above would also ensure the TR and surrounding communities are prepared. Government agencies should be involved in the creation of mine policy and regulations as this would help in insuring mines are safely practicing mining. Regulations should ensure ecosystem resilience and should hold mines accountable for protection of the ecosystem and subsequent damage.

Conclusion

The Taku River ecosystem is an important part of British Columbia and Southeast Alaska, and includes a diverse array of species and habitats. It is vital to subsistence users, commercial users, and recreational users alike. The ecological and socioeconomic aspects are inextricably linked, and it is important to manage and protect both. In light of the mining-related risks previously discussed, we recommend the following mitigating strategies. First, a baseline must be created including water quality sampling and indicator species assessment. Second, basic provisions must be made to ensure the stability of roadways, preventing the degradation of habitat by sediment. Third, effective water processing must be implemented to confront the dangers of impacts such as acid rock drainage and heavy metal leakage. Finally, we recommend the creation of a citizen science monitoring program, overseen by an international board. This program would work in conjunction with an official entity for verification of findings. With the common goal of socioeconomic and physical resilience in mind, inhabitants of the region must work constructively toward solutions that preserve the Taku River for future generations, while allowing for the responsible extraction of natural resources. No matter the solution however, steps must be taken to ensure the resilience and safety of the Taku River ecosystem.

References

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The Resilience of the Taku River Ecosystem to Mining Impacts

The Taku River ecosystem supports a vital fishery to many individuals and user groups. It is a transboundary river, with its headwaters in British Columbia, Canada, and is therefore subject to the Pacific Salmon Treaty. There are a large number of potential mines, both along the Taku River or its tributaries
and their drainage areas. Chieftain Metals Corporation plans to revive the Tulsequah and Big Bull mines. This construction poses risk to the drainage, associated fisheries, and coastal communities of the river.

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