Taku River users expressed relief this week at the state's detailed questioning of mine operator Redfern Resources Ltd. about its proposed year-round Taku River barging.
Wednesday evening, the state Division of Coastal and Ocean Management sent out a nine-page list of questions from three agencies.
"I feel a lot better after reading this," said Ron Maas, who owns 160 acres on the Taku, used to run the Taku Lodge, and doubts Redfern's plan. "This really encourages me that they are doing a thorough job, and I'm tickled."
Redfern, owned by Vancouver-based Redcorp Ventures Ltd., wants to haul an air-cushion barge, or hoverbarge, on the Taku year-round to get supplies and ore in and out of the mine site. The tow vehicles will be shallow-draft tugs in the summer, and in the winter, a combination of amphibious vehicles that cross ice and open leads. The system will halt during freeze-up and spring thaw.
The Tulsequah Chief mine is in British Columbia, 40 miles northeast of Juneau on the Tulsequah River, which runs into the Taku.
Redfern needs permits from the state departments of Fish and Game and Natural Resources to ensure its system doesn't harm the Taku. The project also must be consistent with coastal policies. Those require, for instance, that the state give priority to "competing uses" of coastal areas that are economically or physically dependent on the water.
Permitters have to decide on the project in 30 days, but the clock is stopped until Redfern responds to this request for more information. This is the company's second permit application; the last one had also been suspended to get more information, but was canceled in mid-summer due to a change in the plan.
Redfern has a forward sale of its gold to Gold Wheaton Corp. that includes $90 million that the company can access only once the project has these permits.
The company did not respond to questions Friday by the press deadline.
In this request, the state asked for more about the shape and depth of the river, how the vehicles would be used, how they would affect fish and wildlife, and how the company would deal with accidents, including oil spills.
State permitters asked the company for operational evidence that proves the vehicles do what they're supposed to.
They asked Redfern to break down its projected economic impact on the region in terms of local purchases and wages.
The company has said its project would put $24 million each year into the Juneau economy, and $40 million to the United States.
"That would double the contribution of the Taku to Southeast Alaska," said Redfern manager Tim Davies in early December. "If the transportation system isn't running, that doesn't happen."
The state also asked Redfern for ships' logs from its last two summers of conventional barging on the river. River users reported several groundings. The company has said none of the incidents was officially reportable, but the state remarked that groundings could impede other users' river access.
Chris Knight, executive director of the 485-member United Southeast Alaska Gillnetters' Association, said the department had done a "fairly exemplary job." Fishermen, he said, worry the river won't be deep enough for the tow vehicles to function without chewing up the bottom.
"We believe there isn't adequate space for any of this system to function properly," he said. "We are waiting patiently to be proven wrong."
Chris Zimmer, Rivers Without Borders field coordinator in Juneau, has hounded the state and the company about how the system will work. He said he was pleased to see questions about how the system would work in concert, among others.
"I'm glad they've done their due diligence," he said. "They set a pretty high bar with the questions."
He hoped they'd do the same with the answers, he said.
Longtime gillnetter and retired biologist Jev Shelton said he saw some gaps.
He is concerned about a strong prop wash, and was looking for a complete survey of the river's depth. Large woody debris - often functioning as salmon habitat - would be moved if it threatened the vehicles' operation or safety, but how would that threat be decided? Among other concerns, Shelton saw nothing that would indicate the project's cumulative effects on plants and animals would be monitored.
Nonetheless, Shelton said, the packet was "reasonably thorough."
"I'm certainly more at ease with this set of questions than last time," he said.
One bit of scrutiny may or may not be required. Fish and Game this week asked its commissioner, Denby Lloyd, to approve the lower Taku as "important habitat." Under state law effective in 2005, that approval would require state managers "to avoid, minimize or mitigate significant adverse impacts to the special productivity" of the river.
Without that designation, the Alaska Coastal Management Program won't specifically consider habitat in its coastal review of the project.
Either way, Fish and Game's own permit review will still assess the project's impact on fish habitat.
Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or firstname.lastname@example.org.