Linda Diebel is a National Writer for the Toronto Star, which has the largest circulation in Canada. The paper has an enormous impact on Canada’s federal and provincial politics as well as shaping public opinion. This article was originally published October 3, 2010.
The Dolly Varden carp isn’t much of a looker except, perhaps, to the opposite sex of the same scaly species. What is exceptional (other than a name from Dickens) is how the impending death of about a thousand of these duller members of the salmon family changed Sarah Palin’s life and influenced the fate of fish across Canada.
Of course, they’re not the only factor. Still, their role is impressive, considering these particular fish in southeastern Alaska’s Lower Slate Lake are, in all likelihood, quite dead.
It’s a sprawling story that begins with fish and grows to include mining conglomerates, politicians, lobbyists, promoters, environmental activists and, in Canada, lakes with names like Bucko, Bamoos, Fish (Teztan Biny to the Tsilhqot’in people), Sandy Pond and Ruby Creek.
Already, there are winners and losers; there will undoubtedly be more. Let me explain.
In June, 2007, Palin was governor of Alaska with political ambitions as vast as the northern sky. She’d already hired a savvy East Coast PR firm to promote Alaska (and herself) but she needed serendipity. And that’s exactly what pulled into Juneau in the form of a luxury cruise, sponsored by the conservative magazines The Weekly Standard and National Review. On board were elite American journalists, including William Kristol, Fred Barnes and Michael Gerson.
Palin hosted a lunch at the governor’s mansion and, when her guests wanted to do something “touristy,” according to a 2008 story in The New Yorker, she had them ferried by helicopter some 70 kilometres to the proposed site of the Kensington gold mine.
She gave a barnburner speech about the benefits of the mine — owned by Coeur Alaska, itself part the Coeur D’Alene empire — and the folly of environmentalists, who opposed dumping millions of tons of mining waste into the Lower Slate. Apparently, she knocked everybody’s socks off.
Barnes was “dazzled” by Palin’s handling of the mineworkers who met the group, wrote the magazine’s Jane Mayer, quoting him as saying: “She’s got real star quality.” Long before John McCain announced Palin as his GOP running mate in August 2008, Kristol predicted it on Fox News Sunday.
Alaska mine promoter Randy Wanamaker, a Tlingit tribal elder and consultant for Kensington deeply involved in the regulatory process to launch the project, wasn’t surprised. As one of those who briefed Palin on the importance of the Kensington mine during her successful run for governor in 2006, he knew she had the gumption to sell it. As he explained from Juneau: “She got it. She got it right away.”
Before long, Alaska’s doomed carp were before the U.S. Supreme Court, after a lower court ruled that dumping mine waste in the lake violated the Clean Water Act.
The stakes couldn’t have been higher. Regulatory changes to the Fisheries Act in Canada in 2002 already allowed such dumping in Canada, but this was the American test case, the first since regulatory changes in that country opened the way to depositing toxic waste in pristine waters.
Coeur hired Ted Olson, who made history by winning the Bush v Gore case before the Supreme Court, which ended the vote count in Florida after the 2000 election (remember hanging chads?), and put George W. Bush in the White House. Olson was Bush’s first solicitor-general. With Palin as governor, Alaska intervened in support of the mine, and Wanamaker is proud to have contributed to the environmental case for Kensington.
“This is a muskeg lake, very sterile,” he said. “The fish don’t live in it, they just pass through it.”
Environmentalists urged the Supreme Court not to follow Canada’s example. “Canada is a cautionary tale,” Catherine Coumans, of MiningWatch Canada and a contributor to a court brief by Canadian and U.S. scientists, told Canadian Press in 2009. “What I’m hoping is that the Americans won’t make the same mistake we’ve made.”
In June 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Kensington in a 6-3 decision, and soon thereafter, the mine opened. Tom Waldo, the Earthjustice lawyer who represented the environmental coalition that won the lower court decision, told the Star: “Look, it’s not like they are destroying an incredibly productive lake.
“But it’s the precedent it sets. If they can destroy Lower Slate Lake, they can do it do it to any lake, stream or river in the country . . . We fear it’s just the beginning.”
While disappointed to lose in the Supreme Court, he’s “cautiously optimistic” the Obama administration will reverse the regulation.
The ruling has no legal clout in Canada. But activists here are worried. Says Ramsey Hart, an environmental scientist with MiningWatch in Ottawa: “It gives the industry more backing for its claim this is an acceptable practice. It’s the ability of the government to make regulatory change and have it justified. It means Canada doesn’t stand alone in dumping mine waste into lakes.”
It’s been a long struggle. While both countries amended regulations in 2002 after intense lobbying efforts, the U.S. did so by changing the definition of “fill” under the Clean Water Act to include waste, and Canada rewrote the Fisheries Act to, in essence, allow lakes to be reclassified as “tailings impoundment areas.”
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