A trio of officials from a Canadian mining company met with Juneau interest groups last week to answer questions about a proposal to operate a "hoverbarge" on the Taku River, with a base in Juneau.
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The hoverbarge would make trips four or five days a week hauling concentrate from the Tulsequah Chief mine, 40 miles northeast of Juneau.
The proposal, which came as a surprise to many when announced Jan. 29 by Redcorp Ventures, has some encouraged by the prospect of increased Juneau business.
Others worry about the potential impact on the multimilliondollar Taku River fishing industry.
"Generally, overall, the Douglas Indian Association would prefer the barge alternative versus the 100-mile road" that was originally proposed, said Scott Sloane, the environmental planner for the federally recognized tribal organization based in Juneau.
"It would have less of an impact as long as it meets all the state and federal permitting requirements," he added. The association's 450 members trace their heritage to the Taku River Tlingit.
Previously, Redcorp had proposed the construction of a 100-mile road to access its mineral claims and the multimetal Tulsequah Chief mine, which it hopes to have operational by the end of 2008.
For Sloane, however, the change has brought up a new host of concerns, many of which have still yet to be answered.
"I think (it is OK) if it brings jobs to Alaska and they can do it so it protects fish habitat. Also, there are two species - the humpback whale that is endangered and the Stellar sea lion that is threatened - in the Taku Inlet," he said.
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Redcorp officials said Tuesday that the most common questions posed by Juneau residents have been about how a barge in operation would affect fisheries in the area.
Tim Davies, Redcorp's manager of environmental and regulatory affairs, said that answer is still somewhat uncertain, but the company has pledged to meet with fishermen and work with them to come up with a suitable plan.
Chris Zimmer, the U.S. coordinator for the Transboundary Watershed Alliance, said he met with the Redcorp officials Thursday.
"I guess we were kind of surprised by the lack of detail here. It is not as far along as we had thought," he said.
Davies said that while the hoverbarge would be operational year-round, the mine can store its products for 45 days, meaning barge operations could stop temporarily in extreme weather or heavy fishing times.
Hoverbarges, also known as "air cushion barges," were used to carry supplies across the Yukon River during the construction of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.
They are also in operation across the globe in areas that are difficult to access with other types of vessels. None, however, are operating on a waterway as wild as the Taku.
Tulsequah Chief hoverbarges would carry loads of 450 tons. Davies said plans called for one trip per day, four to five days per week, from the mine just across the border in Canada to Juneau.
Redcorp has been talking with Lynden's docking facility in Juneau about supplies.
The company also expected that 10 employees would be based in Juneau.
Concentrate from the mine would be trans-shipped to a state-owned terminal at Skagway. From there it would be shipped overseas.
Don Reid, vice president of Alaska Marine Lines, a Lynden subsidiary, said the company's Juneau facilities "would be very capable of handling dally barge traffic" from the mine.
He said currently the company receives roughly three barges per week at its facility, the largest of which is a 360-foot by 100-foot barge.
Details are still uncertain, however.
"So far we have given them feasibility numbers to help them evaluate their options," Reid said. "It isn't anything like I have operated. More business is always good."
The mine is expected to have a life span of roughly eight years, although this could be longer depending on reserves.
The mining company also plans to continue construction during the summer using a traditional barge system, similar to what was used during construction that took place in 1994, Davies said.
It is also in the process of determining what type of permits might be required to operate the barge in U.S. waters. On the Canadian side, the new transportation system will likely trigger an amendment to its environmental assessment.
Tom Crafford, the large mine project manager for the Alaska Department of Natural Resources said the state has asked Redcorp to fill out questionnaires that will help determine what kind of permitting process it might need to go through.
"They didn't really commit to any kind of public process, which is kind of a worry here. Meeting with people here was a good step. We have to make sure that (Redcorp) doesn't think that they can just cram it through," Zimmer said.
Brittany Retherford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.