U.S.-Canadian groups petition Washington to stop Taku mine project

A coalition of Canadian and United States conservation groups formally asked the U.S. government today to use a federal statute, which includes the threat of trade sanctions, to pressure Canada to stop a controversial mining project proposed for British Columbia's Taku River.

VANCOUVER / WASHINGTON, D.C., Jan. 4, 2001 — A coalition of Canadian and United States conservation groups formally asked the U.S. government today (Jan.4) to use a federal statute, which includes the threat of trade sanctions, to pressure Canada to stop a controversial mining project proposed for British Columbia's Taku River.

The Taku River rises in Northwestern B.C. and drains into the Pacific Ocean, near Juneau, Alaska. Its watershed - which is roughly the size of Massachusetts - is the largest unprotected, unroaded river drainage on the Pacific coast of North America.

This rare wilderness is also the site of the proposed Tulsequah Chief mine, which would require the construction of a 160-km access road from the mine site to Atlin, B.C. The project is being promoted by Vancouver-based Redcorp Ventures Ltd.

Today, conservation groups belonging to the Transboundary Watershed Alliance (TWA) and other organizations submitted a petition to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior seeking action to block construction of the Tulsequah Chief and its access road.

TWA member groups joining in the petition include Canada's Taku Wilderness Association and Yukon Conservation Society and the U.S.-based groups The Wilderness Society, the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council and National Audubon Society. Other U.S.- based groups joining in the petition include the Natural Resources Defense Council, Defenders of Wildlife and the Sierra Club. The groups are represented by lawyers at Sierra Legal Defence Fund and its sister organization in the United States, Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund.

The petition is based on the 1971 Pelly Amendment to the Fishermen's Protective Act. This U.S. statute requires the Department of the Interior to determine whether another country's actions "diminish the effectiveness" of international environmental protection agreements. If the agency deems this to be the case, it must "certify" the offending nation. Ultimately, the statute permits the U.S. president to impose trade sanctions if necessary to secure compliance.

The petition alleges that the mine and road would injure and harm habitat for woodland caribou and grizzly bears, in violation of the 1942 Convention on Nature and Wild Life Preservation in the Western Hemisphere (for details, see backgrounder at www.sierralegal.org).

"The Pelly certification process provides an opportunity for the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, and ultimately the President, to bring significant pressure to bear on Canada for failing to take measures to protect the Taku River watershed and its protected wildlife," said Eric Jorgensen, a lawyer for Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund. "We hope action from the Secretary will lead to a referral to the International Joint Commission and, in the end, to rejection of the proposed project."

U.S. certification has been issued to good effect in disputes over whaling and the use of drift-nets on the high seas. Certification also led to the imposition of trade sanctions against Taiwan for trading in body parts of endangered rhinoceroses and tigers.

An environmental assessment of the project conducted jointly by the Province of British Columbia and the federal government of Canada in 1997 found that the project would not have significant environmental impacts. Opponents, however, went to court to challenge this assessment and, in June, the B.C. Supreme Court ruled that the assessment was invalid since it was done without addressing concerns of the local First Nation.

"Our concerns have been ignored up to this point, though it's clear that grizzly bear and caribou populations in the Taku will be irreversibly harmed if the mining project that is being promoted by Redcorp and the province of British Columbia goes forward," said Don Weir of the Taku Wilderness Association. "It is our hope that the filing of the Pelly petition will draw international attention to these vulnerable wildlife populations and will focus on the fact that the government of Canada is not adequately caring for species it is sworn to protect."

Sierra Legal staff lawyer Margot Venton said, "It is unusual for Canadians to petition the U.S. government for protection of Canadian wilderness and wildlife, but we are left with few other options. B.C.'s environmental legislation locks our clients out of the process and the environmental assessments have ignored crucial information provided by conservationists. Our governments appear hell-bent on approving the mine, regardless of the cost."

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