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Taku River task force being developed to explore barging risks to salmon

Posted: September 20, 2011 - 12:00am

Juneau’s legislative delegation is forming a fact-finding task force to address issues surrounding the possible impacts for Taku River salmon fisheries in response to barge traffic for the proposed development of Tulsequah Chief Mine in British Columbia.

The task force will be responsible for reviewing biological health and status regarding Taku River fish habitats and game resources and providing basic information to help the delegation make decisions. It will also investigate jurisdictional responsibilities for different agencies in monitoring industrial vessel traffic on the river and assess current state and federal statutes and regulations and their effectiveness.

“We heard from many constituents, urging us to protect salmon habitat,” Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, stated in a release. “The Taku River is unique among large Alaska rivers in that salmon spawn and rear in it, and not just the tributaries that feed into it. We want to be sure nothing is done to disturb those gravel beds and rearing areas.”

The Toronto-based Chieftain Metals, Inc. is working to re-open the mine 40 miles northeast of Juneau. While part of this plan involves the hope of an access road from Atlin, British Columbia, the more immediate construction would involve barging along the Taku. British Columbia signed an agreement with the Taku River Tlingit First Nation in July that calls the Taku River the preferred route for industrial access to the Tulsequah Valley.

The potential impacts these barges will have on the fisheries is what spurred the task force’s development. Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, said it is important to make sure the project is done right to avoid damaging the salmon. He said Taku stakeholders like fishermen, cabin owners, business owners and others rely on the fisheries and that resource must be protected from any damage from barges.

“We don’t want the resource to be jeopardized,” said Egan. “We all support mining but we’re all worried about a mine constructed in Canada that will have an impact on our resources.”

He said this is especially important, as the Taku’s salmon is valuable not only to Southeast but to all of Alaska.

Egan said the task force will make recommendations to the delegation so the proper players in the issues can be identified for various issues. He said this is a different situation than many such projects since it concerns regulations in both the state and Canada.

“We just want to make sure this is done right,” he said.

Rep. Cathy Muñoz, R-Juneau, said confusion is an issue in determining various agencies’ responsibilities regarding things like fish habitats, water quality, oil spill contingencies and a “whole host of other issues.” Such agencies include the state Department of Environmental Conservation, Alaska Department of Fish & Game, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Canadian government.

“We’re concerned on the Alaska side that there are proper protections in place for fisheries,” she said.

Kerttula agreed many of these different responsibilities are still unclear and is hopeful the new task force will remedy that.

The eight-person task force will consist of a representative with ties to the Taku River, including someone from an Alaska Native organization, owners of private and commercial recreational property, a Southeast Alaska salmon commercial fishing permit holder, a commercial fish processor, a sport fisherman, a non-governmental biologist and a holder of a valid charter fishing vessel license or a licensed sport fishing guide in the Juneau area.

The delegation is looking for members of the public to serve in the task force. Those interested in doing so may call 465-4712 by 5 p.m. on Monday.

Meetings will tentatively start in early October. The dates and locations will be announced.

Muñoz said the delegation is encouraging Chieftain to have a presence in the upcoming meetings.

Egan said the delegation started trying to resolve the issue about a year ago, around the time Chieftain Metals barged materials up the Taku River to build an interim water treatment plant at the mine. He said it’s important to bring both sides of the issue together.

Tulsequah Chief Mine produced gold, silver, copper, zinc and lead from 1951 to 1957. Plans include starting mining production in the last half of 2014, according to the aforementioned release.

A representative of Chieftain Metals could not be reached by press time. However, a company release on Monday states the Tetra Tech company Wardrop will do a feasibility study on the project.

Local stakeholders are already chiming in on the task force’s mission. Chris Zimmer of Rivers Without Borders has been working with stakeholders for years on this issue. He said previous barging on the river has had impacts but regulatory oversight on it was lacking.

“We wanted to get a regulatory hook on that and look broadly at issues on the Taku River that need to be dealt with,” he said.

He said the task force will deal with issues affecting the river besides just the barges.

Jev Shelten, a commercial fisherman, has been involved in discussions leading up to this. He said the Taku is a very productive river for salmon and the issue is to determine a practical way to provide added protection so that productivity isn’t compromised.

• Contact reporter Jonathan Grass at 523-2276 or at jonathan.grass@juneauempire.com.

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