Chilkat Valley News - Serving Haines and Klukwan, Alaska since 1966

Hostility to 'Tier 3'

State explains river protection


A Tier 3 designation for the Chilkat River would be compatible with uses like two-stroke outboard motors and existing mining operations, but would be restrictive of new pollution like effluent coming out of a pipe from an industrial operation, a state environmental official told residents at a Monday meeting at the Chilkat Center.

“What Tier 3 designation really affects is wastewater discharge permitting, which is that point-source permitting,” said Michelle Hale, director of the Division of Water for the Department of Environmental Conservation.

Hale asked residents to envision a pipe dumping discharge into the river. “If there is a discharge (at the time of Tier 3 designation), it could continue. It’s essentially grandfathered in.”

DEC also can issue permits for temporary, short-term and limited degradation of the Tier 3 waterway, she said.

Using a riverside lodge development as an example, Hale said a developer could apply for a permit to discharge sediment into the river during construction, but would likely not get a permit for a wastewater treatment plant next to the lodge discharging treated effluent into the river.

“When we say that no degradation is allowed, what that means is that at the time of designation, no additional pollutants can be added to that water. Whereas if it were not designated, we would be able to authorize discharges that would add additional pollutants but not exceed water quality criteria,” Hale said.

More than 100 people attended Monday’s Tier 3 meeting, some making frustrated outbursts and snide side remarks. Though the meeting was billed as a question-and-answer session, critics of the Chilkat’s nomination for Tier 3 status used the venue as an opportunity to voice their opposition.

A year ago, the Chilkat Indian Village nominated the Chilkat River for Tier 3 protection. The Sitka-based Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association endorsed the nomination in April 2015. Hale scheduled the community meeting after receiving numerous inquiries about the nomination.

Alaska doesn’t have a mechanism for establishing Tier 3 waters, although having one is a federal requirement under the Clean Water Act. Establishing the mechanism is the goal of two bills in the Alaska Legislature that would make legislators responsible for making the designation.

Hale repeatedly clarified that the bills would establish the mechanism for making designations, a separate issue from the question of whether the Chilkat River should be so designated.

“Tier 3 waters are not required by the Clean Water Act,” Hale said. “Having the ability to designate a Tier 3 water is required by the Clean Water Act.”

Many at the meeting said Tier 3 protection for the Chilkat was unnecessary.   

 “I might be slow, but I can’t wrap my head around why we’ve got to classify the river,” said resident Duck Hess. “We don’t drink out of it. The fish go up there every year. Why classify something and have another law that is stuffed down our throats? We don’t need that.”

Assembly member Diana Lapham also balked at additional protection. “To me, the Tier 3 is a very restrictive designation. And I think that’s what has us all here this evening,” she said. “It’s restricting us down even more on that river.”

Much discussion stemmed from how a Tier 3 designation would affect the potential development of a mine at the Palmer Project site, where Constantine Metal Resources is currently exploring.

Resident John Floreske asked if the designation would prohibit mine development.

Hale explained that Tier 3 protection means water quality cannot be degraded after the water is designated as Tier 3.

If the Chilkat was designated as a Tier 3 water, and a mine applied for a discharge permit, it would have to prove the discharge would not degrade the quality of the water.  

“If the water quality in the Chilkat River is not maintained, meaning that there are some elements that are higher – it’s being degraded – then that mine would not be permitted,” Hale said. “However, if that water quality is maintained in the Chilkat River, if there is a way that they can treat the water so that it is maintained, it could be permitted. They would have to demonstrate that and probably have to measure that.”

Floreske asked if it was possible for a mine to not degrade water quality at all. Hale responded: “My experience has been it’s very difficult to treat for certain metals in particular, to get them below a certain level.”

But she clarified since there isn’t a mine proposal right now and because the Chilkat River hasn’t been tested to determine its ambient levels, it is impossible to say for certain what would happen.

Constantine Metal Resources geologist Liz Cornejo asked Hale to explain about existing permitting requirements and protections on the Chilkat that are enforced without Tier 3 designation.  

“When we permit mines, that’s what we’re doing: we’re assuring the uses are protected,” Hale said. “So we’re not going to permit a discharge that will not protect those uses or will cause damage to those organisms.”

Cornejo then followed up with a comment about the Northwest Arctic Borough’s Red Dog mine, asking Hale to confirm if it is true that the mine discharges water of a higher quality than is already running in Red Dog Creek. Hale said yes, that is true.

Red Dog Creek is different from the Chilkat in several ways. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, pre-mining studies on the Red Dog Creek showed naturally high concentrations of cadmium, zinc, lead, aluminum and other metals. Before mining began, aquatic life wasn’t present in the creek’s main stem because of the water’s natural toxic concentrations and low pH. Hence, the Red Dog mine is able to discharge water into the creek that is actually less metallic than its natural state.

 Several residents also expressed displeasure that any single individual or organization can nominate a water for Tier 3 status. Resident Jerry Erny called the river nomination system “manipulative” and “pathetic,” and repeatedly asked Hale if she would personally recommend it be changed.

“The question was editorial in nature and I’m not quite sure I...” Hale tried to respond before Erny cut her off. “No, it’s not editorial,” he interjected, and continued to demand a response for why she couldn’t do something about it.

In addition to the Chilkat River, the Koktuli River and Bristol Bay Watershed have also been nominated for Tier 3 status. “The nominations for the Bristol Bay Watershed and the Koktuli River have not generated the level of controversy and difficulty that we are seeing here in Haines,” Hale said.

Hale tried to alleviate concerns of several audience members who feared they would not be able to use two-stroke or outboard motors on a Tier 3 river (they would be able to), or that current mining operations would be shut down (they wouldn’t, unless they increased the level of discharge).

Asked by an audience member if she felt existing regulations are enough to keep fish safe, Hale said she does believe DEC has effective processes in place for protecting Tier 2 rivers like the Chilkat.

If DEC does such a good job, then what is the need for a Tier 3 designation, resident Floreske asked. “I think that the reason that Tier 3 waters and Outstanding National Resource Waters were put in place in the first place is to provide those protections for those really outstanding waters. And so I think that it is a good idea. I think it’s probably good that it’s hard as well, because that is a big decision,” Hale said.

After two hours, Chilkat Indian Village president Jones Hotch Jr. addressed the crowd that was largely hostile toward the nomination. Hotch said he and others have been observing “warning signs” of impending damage to salmon runs, including underweight sockeye and poor gillnetting seasons.

“This (designation) is something that we can do to help the wild stock salmon to keep returning,” Hotch said.

Hotch pointed out that Klukwan residents aren’t the only ones who subsistence fish on the Chilkat, and that the salmon also feed the valley’s various wildlife. “The Chilkat River has fed us for generations and we want that to continue,” he said. 


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