Empire editorial: Time to speak out on Tulsequah Chief Mine

Posted: Friday, February 04, 2005

The time has come for Alaska's top state and federal officials to catch up to the locals and start howling about a Canadian proposal that threatens Southeast Alaska.

The proposed Tulsequah Chief Mine, in the Canadian reaches of the Taku River watershed, is moving toward approval by Canadian officials. A public-comment period ends Feb. 18, and so far Alaska and the United States have had far too little to say about safeguarding one of the region's economic engines.

Juneau's legislative delegation knows it, and has spoken up. The city's Assembly and mayor know it, and have called a public hearing for Tuesday, inviting Canadian officials. If Gov. Frank Murkowski and Alaska's congressional delegation know it, they should attend or send representatives to this fleeting chance to influence the decision-makers.

The Taku is a natural fish factory. Its sockeye, coho and chinook salmon are crucial not only to Juneau gillnetters, but to fishing communities up and down the Panhandle. A McDowell Group study of the Taku's economic significance, released last September, found the river's contribution to the regional commercial fishery was $5.4 million. The report put the Taku's contribution to the regional sport-fishing economy at $2 million. And it found that over the past decade anywhere from half to nearly all of the sport-caught chinook in the Juneau area each year were spawned in the Taku.

This is more than a development-versus-preservation debate. It is fishermen, guides, processors and Alaska communities facing a real threat from possible acid mine drainage and other disturbances - a road punched through the wilderness and into the watershed, for one - to the river that feeds them. Worse, the threat is from Canada, which lacks the stringent up-front environmental vetting that American mines and other environmental hazards must navigate. In effect, the Canadian system approves a project and then works out the details.

Alaska and the United States have no veto in this matter. They can have a voice, though. They can apply pressure in Ottawa.

It's OK to be both pro-development and protective of Alaska's economic health. Alaska's leaders should show that they are, Tuesday in Juneau, and keep it up until the Tulsequah Chief's fate and conditions are settled.

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