Construction of a multi-metal mine in British Columbia that has environmental groups worried because of its proximity to the Taku River could begin as soon as spring 2004, the developer says.
The Tulsequah Chief mine is on the Tulsequah River a few miles from where that waterway runs into the Taku. It's about 10 miles east of the border and about 40 miles from Juneau. It was operated for a few years in the 1950s, but closed in 1957 and has not been reopened.
Vancouver, B.C.-based mine developer Redfern Resources Ltd. began working on reopening the mine in the early 1990s. The company proposes to mine mostly zinc, then copper, lead, silver and gold. It has yet to obtain its operating permits, but has been granted what's known as a project approval certificate, said Redfern President Terence Chandler. At the earliest, construction could begin in spring 2004. He estimates the mine will open about two years after construction begins.
In British Columbia, permitting is a two-step process. Project developers first must undergo an environmental assessment and receive a project approval certificate. From there they can apply for the necessary operating permits.
Redfern first acquired its project certification in 1998. The Taku River Tlingit First Nation in British Columbia filed suit because the mine is on land on which they have a pending claim with the provincial government. After several years of court action and a rescinding of the project certificate, Redfern got approval again in 2002.
"There are a couple of conditions that we have to satisfy before we can actually do anything in the way of construction," Chandler said. "One of them is to complete some refined test work on our proposed treatment water discharge. The other condition is to do further test work on the sediments underneath the proposed tailings pond."
The state of Alaska and the U.S. government will have an opportunity to comment on the testing procedures, and then will have another opportunity to comment when the test results come back.
"We feel that we will have an adequate opportunity through the permit review process and consultation and final design stages to try and ensure the protection of our resources while also allowing the British Columbia government and the mine to look forward," said Cam Toohey, the secretary of the interior's special assistant to Alaska.
Chandler said the tests probably will begin in two to three months.
The test work is the result of a request by former Gov. Tony Knowles. Under Canadian and provincial law, project construction could begin before the tests were run. But Knowles asked Redfern to wait for the test results before building.
The tailings pond, where the mine material would be dumped after the minerals were removed, has been a point of concern for environmental groups.
"The tailings pond is literally on the banks of the Tulsequah River, and it's been polluting the river," said Chris Zimmer, spokesman for the Transboundary Watershed Alliance.
Chandler said the old tailings stream used by the Tulsequah mine actually was located at the nearby Polaris-Taku gold mine, which had been shut down.
"It's easy to say that it's polluting the river, but there's been a lot of research and I don't believe that it is polluting. Most of the tailings that came out of that site were very benign. They were almost like sediments," he said.
Redfern's proposed tailings pond is about two miles from the Tulsequah River, and about 11 miles from the Taku River. Chandler said the pond is completely contained and does not sit directly on any Tulsequah tributary.
"Technically, the tailings are going to be equivalent to the kind of material that the glacier delivered to the river," he said, adding that Alaska has a lot of experience with multi-metal mines such as the Tulsequah Chief.
"The Greens Creek Mine near Juneau is virtually an identical type of deposit to what we proposed. I think they demonstrated that that kind of operation could take place without any environmental impact," he said.
Chandler met with Gov. Frank Murkowski in mid-February in Juneau to discuss the mine.
"At this point, we're just monitoring what's going on," said Jack Phelps, the governor's special assistant on mining. "I don't get the impression from this company that they want to do anything but be cooperative with the government of Alaska."
Phelps and Murkowski spokesman John Manly both said the governor hasn't explicitly expressed an opinion on the mine project.
"There's no secret that this is a very pro-development administration," Phelps said. "We've not said anything specific, but we did deliver very strongly the message that ... fisheries production, salmon production, in the Taku River system are very important to us.
He said the state Department of Environmental Conservation would have a consultative role on the granting of some of the permits Redfern will apply for.
"There are always the questions of water quality when you have a mine near a major water body," Phelps said.
Those are the concerns that weigh most heavily on the minds of groups like Zimmer's.
"There are a host of questions. Can this mine be built, operated and decommissioned without harming healthy salmon fisheries in the river?" Zimmer said.