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Taku fact-finders full speed ahead

Posted: January 15, 2012 - 12:12am

Though the owner of the Tulsequah Chief mine has announced it will not barge on the Taku River, the Taku River Fact-Finding Task Force continues to search for questions and answers about the mine and its potential effects to the river’s salmon run.

The task force met for the third of five planned meetings on Friday. Juneau’s legislative delegation called for the task force after Chieftain Metals, owner of the Tulsequah Chief Mine, resumed barging operations on the Taku River in mid-2011. Chieftain built a $5 million water treatment facility to treat run-off water from the out-of-service mine.

Tulsequah is located in British Columbia about 40 miles north of Juneau.

At the close of the Jan. 7 meeting, after Chieftain said it would build a road for transport instead of barging, a member of the public asked whether the task force had any further use. The company, founded in 2010 to develop the Tulsequah Mine, lost $750,000 from frustrated efforts to barge on the Taku, Chieftain Metals Chief Operation Officer Keith Boyle said. The proposed 130-kilometer access road would connect the mine to greater British Columbia road system. However, to construct the road, Chieftain plans to barge material up the Taku with 15 to 20 round trips.

The previous owners of the Tuslequah mine, Redfern Corp., planned to bring materials up the river and ore down by way of the world’s largest hoverbarges. Designed by Hovertrans Ltd., the 210-foot air cushioned barge named “Monty” was built by Sundial Marine Construction and Repair. The barge is driven by four CAT 3412 diesels and is designed to hover about five feet above the river. Its 9,000-square-foot deck can accommodate 450 tons. Redfern recently sold the barge to an unnamed private group.

The type of barges now used by Chieftain are more traditional 100-ton barges pulled by tugs with relatively shallow drafts of around three feet. Similar tugs include the 92-foot Fred Wahl Marine tug Dana Cruz, recently sent to work on the rivers and coastal waters of Western Alaska, or the much smaller Sparkman & Stephens Design 863 with a draft of only 2 feet, 6 inches.

Many task force members are as concerned about tug trips since Chieftain announced it will use road communication instead of small barges.

During its road construction phase, Cheiftain still expects to make between 15 and 20 trips on the river. Some of these trips may contain diesel fuel loaded into a truck and secured to a barge.

With the speed of the river, task force member Michael Ward said, a fuel slick can travel great distances in little time.

Mike Peterson said he believed there is not much that can be done about what happens on Canada’s side of the border. Others agreed that there is a need to coordinate efforts with Canada on spill response.

Chieftain’s 15 to 20 trips really equals 30 to 40 trips out and back, Peterson said.

“Suddenly doubles the load on the river,” Peterson said.

Peterson asked whether the U.S. Coast Guard would consider barges that get tangled in the woody debris along the shore officially grounded. These debris form vital salmon habitat.

“We do not want wholesale removal of woody debris,” Peterson said.

Coast Guard Chief of Waterways Pay Drayer responded in a written answer that “(u)nless the vessel hull was also touching the floor of the body of water, no, (a vessel caught up or other wise intangled in, brush, trees, etc. along a river bank) does not constitute a grounding which requires notification to the U.S. Coast Guard.” The state of Alaska controls the Taku’s “floor” on the U.S. side of the border with British Columbia.

Task force member Cherie Rudolph, owner of private recreational property along the Taku, expressed concern about grounding reports to the Coast Guard. A photo of a submerged tug and barge on the Taku puts question to the Coast Guard’s records of only four passenger vessel grounding on the river since 1993, she said.

Members also expressed concern Alaska will have no oversight how British Columbia manages the Tulsequah Chief Mine. Ward owns a commercial recreational property along the Taku. He said he has seen some decline in salmon stocks on the Taku. He asked if this could be associated with Canada’s fish management practices. Task force member Paul Kissner, a non-governmental member, said, as an example, sockeye returns at Little Trapper Lake don’t appear as numerous as would be expected considering escapement numbers.

Richard Yamada, a licensed sport fishing guide, said he questioned whether the Taku would be harmed by the pollution levels allowed by Canadian statutes.

“I have my doubts about how sensitive the Taku habitat is...and how long it would take clean up any major accident,” Yamada said. “What are the safegaurds for long-term low doses of heavy metals in spawning or transitory areas?”

Since Chieftain cancelled its barging operation the major risks to the Taku are above the border, Yamada said.

“We have no oversight of their plans,” Yamada said. However, he said he was impressed by Cheiftain’s presentation on Jan. 7.

“If everything is as they say and operated to their specifications I’m sure the risks would be lowered, but we have no oversight,” he said.

The task force’s goals are to review biological health of river, investigate who is responsible for vessel groundings, assess current state and federal statutes and present a final report to Alaska’s Legislature. At the task force’s recent meeting, task force facilitator Kevin Ritchie asked members to review the group’s goals. With the information and questions uncovered in the first six hours of meetings, the task force may feel it needs to change course.

Instead of a question, at least one member of the public decided to write the statement that “(t)he mine has said that other than the 15-20 barge loads, barging is done. This should end the task forces (sic) mission today.”

Task force members decided that the goals remain sound.

Ritchie recommended setting aside a meeting for public comment on the task force’s seven- to 12-page draft report.

The task force discussed it should handle the many public questions already submitted and those expected along the way.

“Running down every question and evaluating if every question is valid for this task force is tough,” Ritchie said.

However, Ritchie said he believes the questions have already served a purpose in shaping the questions and thoughts of the task force members. Also, he said, so far state and federal agencies have been responsive to the questions coming out of the task force.

Yamada said the nature of the questions are technical and open-ended and require more research than the task force can provide. Many questions have a “hint of ‘is this a possible solution?’” Yamada said. However, he said, “our task was a fact-finding mission, not so much trying to find solutions.”

Rudolph said she would like to make sure all of the public’s questions were answered. Mike Peterson agreed and said he would like to make sure all the questions and answers are easy to access for the public.

Chris Clark, Staff for Rep. Cathy Muñoz, said he posts information from the task force to the legislative committee website, http://bit.ly/xlebSi. 

The next task force meeting is tentatively scheduled for 5 p.m. on Jan. 30 or 31. A location has yet to be determined.

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

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