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Taku River task force begins fact finding mission

Posted: January 6, 2012 - 12:09am
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Taku River Fact-Finding Task Force members Michael Ward, left, Jim Erickson, center, and Len Peterson listen to Salmon Research Biologist Ed Jones of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in the House Finance Committee Room of the Alaska State Capitol on Thursday.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Taku River Fact-Finding Task Force members Michael Ward, left, Jim Erickson, center, and Len Peterson listen to Salmon Research Biologist Ed Jones of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in the House Finance Committee Room of the Alaska State Capitol on Thursday.

The eight-member Taku River Fact-Finding Task Force kicked off its year-long mission to provide facts on the river to Alaska’s decision makers Thursday night.

Juneau’s legislative delegation formed the task force when Cheiftain Metals, owner of the Tulsequah Chief Project, started barging on the river a year ago.

Chieftain built a $5 million water treatment facility to treat run-off water from the out-of-service mine.

State Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, said at the time, “it’s important to bring both sides of the issue together.”

At Thursday’s meeting, Egan and state Reps. Beth Kerttula and Cathy Muñoz wished the task force well and thanked them for their time.

Egan said the first step in the problem solving process is to come to a common understanding of the facts. The Taku River is a complex issue with many state, federal, Canadian and First Nations agencies involved, he said.

To grapple with this complex issue, the Juneau delegation created a fact-finding task force. Not to make specific recommendations, Egan said, but to take a broad look to help in future decision-making. 

Muñoz, R-Juneau, said early research into Taku River barging proved difficult when trying to sort out which agencies had jurisdiction over different aspects of the Taku.

Finding the facts sounds like it would be easy, said Kerttula, “but it hasn’t been up to now.” And Kerttula, D-Juneau, warned the task force members their task would not be easy either. However, Kerttula said, the group would get help.

“It is unique in the Legislature to have a delegation that works so hand in glove, the three of us worked hand in glove” concerning the task force, Kerttula said. “You are going to hear from a lot of people, you are going to have a lot of latitude,” she said.

The task force’s facilitator, Kevin Ritchie, said the eight-member task force isn’t designed for tie-breaking votes.

“Consensus is what is hoped for,” Ritchie said.

Chieftain Metals Inc. started in 2009 with the Tulsequah Project, which includes the Tulsequah Chief and Big Bull mines. The project is located around 60 miles south of Atlin, British Columbia.

Tulsequah Chief contains zinc, copper, lead, gold and silver. Redfern Resources owned the mine until May 2009.

The task force plans to hold five meetings between now and Dec. 15 when the final fact-finding report is due.

Ritchie said the task force will keep limited minutes, however the Legislative Information Office recorded the meeting and will have it available online.

All documents from the meetings will be posted under Committee Hearings on the Legislature’s website, BASIS.

Ed Jones and Charlie Swanton of the Alaska Department of Fish & Game spoke to the task force on fish runs and characteristics of spawning and rearing habitat on the Taku.

The Taku River and Northern Stikine River have a mix of fish species in that section of the world “that is not seen anywhere else really,” Swanton said. All five species of salmon are there, along with steelhead, northern pike and bull trout. Swanton said he even has anecdotal evidence of green sturgeon.

Swanton said his primary tool for assessing fish stocks is the fishwheel. He said the bounty of the river system is indicative in their assessment catches.

“There’ll be days where we have to pitch 1,500 pinks from a wheel,” Swanton said.

Swanton said the Taku generates significant revenue. He estimates a “couple million dollars of ex vessel value,” he said. 

Randy Bates, director of the Division of Habitat and Jackie Timothy, regional supervisor with ADF&G, talked about management authorities.

Fish and Game, Timothy said, has statutory responsibility for providing free passage for fish migrating up rivers from the sea in state water bodies.

However, conventional barging does not require a permit from Habitat. If a barge should contact the streambed often enough to change the stream bed, ADF&G can require a permit. So far, Timothy said, Cheiftain has not applied for a permit from Habitat.

The task force resumes Saturday morning from 9 a.m. to noon in the Alaska State Capitol House Finance Committee Room, room 519. Capitol doors open at 8:30 a.m.

• Contact reporter Russell Stigall at 523-2276 or at russell.stigall@juneauempire.com.

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