A hoverbarge on the Taku River?
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"Nobody really knows what to think about it," said Jim Becker, who serves as president of both the Juneau Chamber of Commerce and the Southeast Alaska Gillnetters Association.
Becker's sentiment echoed that of many others in Juneau Tuesday, a day after a Canadian mining company announced that it wants to employ a new type of barge to transport equipment and supplies on the Taku River, instead of using a road for mine access.
Known as an "air cushion barge" or "hoverbarge," the craft would operate year-round to and from the proposed Tulsequah Chief mine in British Columbia, according to a plan released by the company, Redcorp Ventures Ltd.
The multi-metal mine is 40 miles southeast of Juneau.
The company said in a press release that it no longer wants to build a 100-mile road to access the Tulsequah Chief from Canada. It suggested the hoverbarge idea instead.
Alaska's role in reviewing the plan remained unclear.
"I wish I had more of a definitive answer," said Tom Crafford, the large mine project coordinator at the state Department of Natural Resources.
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"It really doesn't involve the installation of any facilities in Alaska. That could serve to limit the permitting hook that we have into the project," he said.
"Certainly one area that is of possibility is with spill contingency plans," he said. Certain indicators - such as weight - automatically trigger the need for a plan.
Regardless of whether it has any permitting authority, however, the state still will play an advisory role.
"They are talking about revising the environmental assessment for the project. I would expect that the state would have a voice in reviewing the proposed modifications. The state's role in that process is really one where we get to comment, and that is basically all," Crafford said.
Terry Chandler, Redcorp's president and chief executive officer, said that only limited review for the hoverbarge proposal could be done until the plan was announced publicly.
"I know there is a community of interest in Juneau. We are going to make them aware of what we are talking about here," he said. The company began exploring the possibility of using the vessels in September. It now must meet with Canadian and Alaskan officials to determine what kind of environmental review and permitting will be required.
Right now, however, there are more questions than answers.
Becker wondered how susceptible to spills the barges might be, particularly considering the river's notoriously strong winds.
"It is pretty rough water. It could be horribly, horribly rough water at times," Becker said.
Kathy Hansen, the statewide chair of United Fishermen of Alaska, a commercial fishermen advocacy group, was curious to learn how the mining company's barges would be able to maneuver through the dozens of fishermen.
"My first thoughts were: How are you going to be operating these air cushion barges? You'll have up to a hundred boats up there fishing in the Taku (and) Stephens Passage. How are they going to weave in and out of the nets?" she said.
Before the river discharges into Stephens Passage, it pools in the large Taku Inlet where Juneau gillnetters set their nets for sockeye salmon.
The Taku originates in Canada but cuts through the Coastal Range in Southeast Alaska before discharging into the passage. Several isolated cabins and a lodge dot the river corridor.
"I can expect that there will be concerns on behalf of the people who have properties on the Taku Inlet," Crafford said.
On the plus side, the plan could mean more of an economic boom for Juneau because its port would be used as a loading facility.
"Before the mining operation, (Redcorp) said there really wasn't any viable economic benefit to Juneau. But we knew full well that they would come into Juneau to buy supplies. Now, if they are going to have a loading operation, there will be more," Becker said.
The press release said one barge per day was expected to carry a maximum of 450 tons of mineral concentrate.
There is also the potential that other mining companies exploring the Taku River watershed could see this technology and want to use it as well.
"That has always been the question. If one goes in, how many others will pop up?" Becker said.
"This would certainly make it more beneficial to other operations. We don't know the status of all the rest of them. We've got them identified," Becker said.
The barges would not necessarily be a good thing if there is increased traffic affecting fish habitat, he said.
Another benefit of employing the barges, however, would be the lack of the need for the road.
"Generally speaking that would be regarded by most people as a positive environmental feature that the 160 kilometers of road will not be constructed," Crafford said.
It also saves the company considerable money. Using hoverbarges will save Redcorp $39.4 million in capital costs, it said.
Chris Zimmer of the Transboundary Watershed Alliance said he worried that the mine only recently began considering the hoverbarge proposal and was concerned about the novelty of the idea.
"It doesn't appear to have been used on any other river than Taku (in Southeast Alaska)," he said.
"I don't think the company has thought this through. Right now the Canadians are really just winging this and I don't think it is fair for Alaska to just have to sit back and watch them," Zimmer said.
Crafford said that "what I need to do is huddle up with the other agencies and have a meeting and kind of pick people's brains as to what the permitting requirements would be on the sate side."
Other departments would likely include the Department of Environmental Conservation and Fish and Game.
"It is kind of a novel proposal. It is not something that we have seen before," he said.
Brittany Retherford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.