JUNEAU, Alaska — Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott and British Columbia's minister of energy and mines were working toward an agreement in response to concerns raised about the potential impacts of Canadian mine development on rivers that flow into southeast Alaska.
Nothing was finalized as Minister Bill Bennett neared the end of his Alaska trip Wednesday, though he and Mallott characterized the trip as productive.
Bennett told reporters the trip, including a day along the Taku River, gave him a sense for what's at stake from Alaska's perspective. Along the Taku Bennett said he saw how "magnificent" that ecosystem is, seeing bears, eagles, mountain goats and lots of salmon.
The men said a memorandum of understanding could be used to lay out a process for working together. But some conservationists and fishing industry representatives, while encouraged by Bennett's visit, said they wanted to see more.
Dale Kelley, executive director of the Alaska Trollers Association, said memoranda of understanding often are little more than letters of intent.
"We're not really interested in something that isn't going to bind them to take care of fish and wildlife, water quality, indemnify our losses if something should happen that's extraordinary," Kelley said.
Currently seven major projects in northwest British Columbia have potential trans-boundary implications. There are numerous exploratory projects.
Conservationists, Alaska Natives and fishermen are among those who have sought for Alaska to have a greater say in Canadian permitting decisions for projects that could impact salmon-bearing waters in the state.
The 2014 failure of a mine-waste storage facility in another part of the province heightened fears about how development near Alaska's shared border with British Columbia could affect rivers and streams that flow into southeast Alaska.
On Wednesday, a rally was held on the steps of the state Capitol to draw attention to the issue. Some held signs with messages like "Governor Walker Get Extra Tuff on BC Mines" and "Get Extra Tuff for AK Salmon," a play-on-words with the Xtratuf boots commonly worn by southeast Alaska residents.
Edie Leghorn, an organizer of the event, said salmon is "the foundation and the pride of our economy, our culture and our way of life. And I and thankfully Alaskans around the region are not able to stand idly by and watch that threatened."
Some groups want an international commission to review the planned developments and how they might affect downstream waters. Bennett and Mallott have indicated such calls are premature as they continue working together, though they haven't ruled that out if, say, talks break down.
Mallott, who works on trans-boundary water issues within Gov. Bill Walker's administration, said he would request a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to impress upon him the importance of the issue to both nations and ask that State Department officials keep up to date on the situation. The national governments are to make any requests for involvement by the International Joint Commission.
State Rep. Sam Kito III, D-Juneau, attended a meeting with the provincial delegation Tuesday. He was interested in there being a way for Alaskans to be included during the public comment period for British Columbia's mine review processes. He said Mallott indicated that was being worked on, and the ministry delegation seemed "very enthusiastic about receiving comments from our side of the border in that fashion."
"That, I think, will help with allowing us to be as engaged as people in British Columbia during their regular permitting process," he said. One challenge will be in notifying the public of the comment periods, Kito said.
A ministry spokesman has said representatives from state and U.S. federal agencies have been involved in environmental assessments of mining projects in British Columbia and that the state has been involved in the approval process for several projects.
But Chris Zimmer, Alaska campaign director for Rivers Without Borders, said the province controls the permitting process and the state participates at British Columbia's willingness.
Zimmer said the mine-by-mine permitting approach isn't designed to address long-term cumulative impacts. He and others worry, too, about the management of mine sites that will need perpetual maintenance.