Scores weigh in on plan for hoverbarges

Posted: Tuesday, February 05, 2008

State permitters and Tulsequah Chief Mine developers submitted to a barrage of public questions Monday night on the mine company's plan to use a hoverbarge on the Taku River.

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More than 260 people showed up. It was not an official public meeting to take testimony. And Redfern, as many knew, paid for the rooms. So some of the public had not expected to be able to speak at all.

Tim Davies, director of permitting for Redfern from Redfern Resources Ltd. gave a short PowerPoint presentation regarding such things as the principle of buoyancy, what a hoverbarge is and how much water it displaces, how much noise it would make, and that it is a good corporate citizen. The state permitters presented on their process: two permits, for transit through anadromous waters and over land, are required.

The rest of the time was for questions. Or criticisms posed as questions. Questioners and respondents were civil if often tense.

"Not every inch of the Taku is rearing habitat. Not every inch is spawning habitat," said Janet Timothy, of the Office of Habitat Management and Permitting. It was the job of habitat biologists, she said, to find areas that would have a minimal effect on fish. But audience members who spoke were skeptical that there was or would be enough information to make a good decision.

Some asked if the Office of Habitat's catalog of sensitive areas was adequate. That is what the division uses to decide whether an activity on the water will affect young fish.

In the same vein, gillnetter Jev Shelton asked if the state knew how disturbing ice formations would affect fish rearing or spawning. And if the ice formations keep changing, how would the company know where to go?

"We still have a lot of work to do," Timothy said. "We hope to come up with a route that will avoid any impacts or minimize impacts. That is our job."

"This is a situation that is going to take further investigation, and every year is going to be different," Davies said.

A few people asked about what the company planned to do when it encountered snags in the river, also known as large woody debris. They are known as salmon-rearing habitat. The company has said it would move them only in a life-threatening condition. But questioners said the company had been ambiguous about how that would be defined. They worried that the company would move the snags to navigate more easily, or to protect the hoverbarge.

The company said it had no permit on the Alaska side of the Taku to remove snags, and would not do so except to protect human life. But Timothy later defined it as "a situation of protection of life and property."

One question raised at the meeting was whether Redfern's barge met the manufacturer's production specifications, the state Department of Natural Resources was prepared to offer a permit?

Timothy said yes. Meeting those specifications would be a good indication that the company was making good on its claims of little to no impact on the environment, she said.

After the meeting, many people said they hadn't learned much.

"It didn't really change my opinion at all. I still have a lot of concerns about the navigation route," said K. Koski, a retired salmon habitat biologist from the National Marine Fisheries Service. "If any of it's altered, it's really going to disrupt the habitat of the fish."

"I don't know if they understand how personal the Taku is for a lot of Juneau residents," said Joe Emerson, a resident and salmon troller.

Tom Crafford, director of large-mine permitting for the Department of Natural Resources, said he was happy with the meeting, and impressed with many of the questions regarding the state's data.

"It's a difficult thing," he said of the permitting process. "You don't have complete information. There's always more information that you'd like to have."

And Davies, said that in his experience with public meetings, he thought the meeting went well. It was so civil, he said, because Redfern made an effort to meet beforehand with the Taku's stakeholders.

"It served its purpose," he said. "It was a meeting about people genuinely wanting information so they could comment on the project."

Public comment will be open on this project until at least Feb. 22.

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