Groups want more details on hoverbarges

Posted: Sunday, February 03, 2008

Redfern Resources Ltd. has offered new information on the hoverbarge it wants to use on the Taku River for the Tulsequah Chief Mine.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

But state agencies and conservation groups, concerned about environmental consequences, say they need more.

Redfern, based in Vancouver, British Columbia, responded Jan. 18 to the state's request for more information.

"In some places, the responses were definitely acceptable. And in some of the other areas, I don't think that we can necessarily say that," said Tom Crafford, state mining coordinator. "There's a lot more information that the state agencies will need to have about these vessels."

The state is preparing a new set of questions for Redfern. But these won't be ready for a public meeting to be held Monday night at Centennial Hall, according to the agencies.

Redfern plans to send goods and people between Juneau and the proposed Tulsequah Chief Mine up the Taku River into Canada. The company wishes to use a hoverbarge, also known as an air-cushion barge. It has been used on the Yukon, in Siberia, and in the swamps of Suriname, in northern South America, a spokeswoman said.

The barge cannot propel itself. Redfern's plan is that in the winter the vessel would be towed or pushed by an amphibious vehicle, specially modified for the Taku. This "Amphitrac" will propel itself with rubber tires over land, with steel wheels for more traction and with Archimedes-screw propellers for operating in water and for crunching through broken ice.

Redfern has said that these vehicles will be slow, not very noisy and gentle on the environment.

But conservation groups, fishermen, recreational users and landowners on the Taku say Redfern has not proved that, and the vehicle should not be tested on the valuable river.

Rivers Without Borders, a Juneau-based conservation group, commissioned and submitted to the state a biological study on the Taku hoverbarge. The authors said the environmental impact on the Taku of the hoverbarge system cannot be known with the information the company has provided. And given what they had, they were pessimistic.

"Unsubstantiated assurances by the company and their consultants that everything will be fine do not hold up to even the mildest scientific and technical scrutiny," said Chris Zimmer, U.S. coordinator of Rivers Without Borders, in a letter to the state.

The mine company said in its Jan. 18 response that it plans to test the hoverbarge system on the Taku in March after trying it in other places first, perhaps Scotland and the Columbia River.

The latter is known for its fierce weather conditions and difficult maneuverability, said habitat biologist Jackie Timothy.

Crafford said the state and Redfern also are looking for local places of lower value where the company might test its vessels. The Taku is Southeast Alaska's most productive salmon-bearing river.

Agency biologists have not ruled out the possibility that Redfern may prove its system.

"If it performs up to the standard that they claim it will, then it is possible that impacts could be avoided, minimized or mitigated," Timothy said.

Redfern doesn't plan to operate on any federal lands, making the permit process much simpler than for many mines. State permits will be required, though.

Redfern assumes the mine, about 40 miles northeast of Juneau, will operate for eight years and produce 2,000 tons of ore a day. The company's first plan was to build a road from the mine to Atlin, British Columbia. It introduced the Taku River plan as a way to save $65 million.

• Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or by e-mail at

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