- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 25, 2015

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - Gov. Bill Walker and British Columbia Premier Christy Clark signed a cooperative agreement Wednesday committing to work together on issues of shared interest, including addressing concerns about the effect of Canadian mining on waters flowing into Alaska.

The memorandum of understanding calls for a working group comprised of state and provincial officials that would, among other things, work to develop and implement a joint water-quality monitoring program and set up a means of sharing information.

Bill Bennett, the province’s minister of energy and mines, called the agreement momentous. While it’s not legally binding, he said having the leaders of two jurisdictions sign a document saying they’ll cooperate in a certain way carries a lot of importance. “We actually have time here to gather baseline information and to develop the right protocols between the two jurisdictions long before we have any sort of rampant or comprehensive mine development in the northwest part of our province,” he said.

Alaska’s government has asked for comments from interested parties on a document that will flesh out terms of the memorandum related to trans-boundary waters. Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott said the state will share its ideas with provincial officials so they can continue the conversation in Canada.

Chris Zimmer, Alaska campaign director for Rivers Without Borders, said the draft document that’s been circulated is flawed and lacks specific binding commitments.

Heather Hardcastle, director of the Salmon Beyond Borders campaign, said by that working out the memorandum of understanding, the state seems to be conceding this is a local issue. The campaign has advocated for an international commission to review the planned mine developments and how they could affect Alaska’s downstream waters. Requests for an international commission’s involvement must come from the national governments.

Bennett said British Columbia would only seek the involvement of an international commission if it became “next to impossible” to deal with the state.

“We’re actually moving in the opposite direction from that,” he said. “We’re cooperating, and we’re being respectful.”

Mallott, who works on trans-boundary water issues within Walker’s administration, said the agreement is neutral on the possibility of an international commission’s involvement. As long as British Columbia is permitting mines, it’s incumbent upon the state to be as engaged as possible to protect its interest in the water quality and environmental integrity, he said.

The agreement included other provisions, such as continuing cooperation on tourism promotion and working to promote marine transportation safety and reliability.

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