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Alaska requests greater involvement in oversight of large B.C. gold mine

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VANCOUVER - The state of Alaska has taken the rare step of asking the Canadian government for greater involvement in the approval and regulation of a controversial mine in northwestern British Columbia amid growing concern that the project could threaten American rivers and fish.

Alaska's Department of Natural Resources outlined its request in a letter this week to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, which has been reviewing the proposed KSM gold and copper mine, owned by Seabridge Gold Inc. (TSX:SEA). The project has already been approved by B.C.

"The state of Alaska has important obligations to our citizens relating to the protection of fish, wildlife, waters and lands that we hold in trust," says the state's letter, signed by three senior bureaucrats.

The letter requests that the state be involved in the authorization and permitting process for the KSM mine, the development of enforcement provisions in those permits, and the development of monitoring programs for water quality and dam safety.

Alaska has already been consulted during both the provincial and federal environmental reviews, which is routine for projects that could affect neighbouring jurisdictions, but the vast majority of permitting work occurs after an environmental certificate is issued.

Kyle Moselle of Alaska's Department of Natural Resources said the state has developed a good relationship with Canadian regulators, but he said that shouldn't stop when the environmental assessment process is over.

"As far as I know, we have not sought direct involvement in the permitting or monitoring processes for a large hard rock mine proposed in northwest B.C.," Moselle said in an interview Friday.

"That's really where the enforceable provisions of how the project will be constructed, operated and monitored are laid out. That's the process we want to be involved in."

Environmentalists, aboriginal groups and commercial fishermen in Alaska claim the project poses a risk to rivers that flow into their state, and they've pointed to a recent tailings spill at an unrelated mine in central B.C. to amplify those concerns.

The tailings dam at the Mount Polley mine failed almost three weeks ago, releasing millions of cubic metres of water and silt into the surrounding watershed and raising fears about the potential impact on the environment and fish. The B.C. government says testing has so far indicated water and fish in the area are safe for human consumption.

The KSM project would be located near the Unuk River system, which also flows into Alaska, though its tailings facility would be in the Naas River watershed, which empties into the Pacific Ocean in B.C.

While the tailings facility won't be located near the Unuk, treated effluent is expected to be discharged into the river.

Critics of the KSM mine in Alaska have called for the Canadian environment minister to refer the project to a more detailed process known as a panel review, which was used to evaluate the failed New Prosperity mine in central B.C. before the federal government rejected it.

In its letter, the state of Alaska does not take a position on whether a panel review is necessary.

"This letter includes the state's request that you carefully consider the numerous petitions for a panel review and how the underlying public concerns might be best addressed, whether through such a review or other processes," says the letter.

Ted Laking, a spokesman for Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq, said the government is reviewing a study report from the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency and that it would be inappropriate to comment.

The agency confirmed it had received the state's letter and said in an emailed statement that the current environmental review process "has been an effective way to identify the potential environmental effects" of the KSM mine.

"Potential environmental effects have been identified by federal experts for various components for the project," the email said.

"These impacts are generally well understood and would not be expected to be significant with the application of proven mitigation measures."

B.C.'s environment minister, Mary Polak, noted Alaska has been involved throughout the environmental assessment process, though she wouldn't say whether the state would have any formal involvement during subsequent permitting at the provincial level.

"What I can say is that we always try to involve regions, even when they are outside B.C., if they are going to be impacted by a project that has aspects that cross the border ... but I'm not familiar with the specifics of what they're asking," Polak said Friday.

Seabridge has said it has worked hard to address concerns in Alaska, and the company insisted the project will have no impact on American rivers or fish.

The company notes its tailings facility is located in a watershed that does not empty into the United States, and it says it will be required to adhere to strict water quality standards for any water that is discharged into the Unuk River.

A spokesperson for Seabridge was not immediately available on Friday.

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