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Alaska and federal officials have a list of questions and few answers about a Canadian mining company's plan to use a hoverbarge to transport supplies on the Taku River from the state capital to the Tulsequah Chief mine, roughly 40 miles northeast of downtown.
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"State agencies are hungry for details about virtually all aspects of their design and operation, particularly in the dynamic and challenging conditions that can occur in the Taku River and Inlet," said Tom Crafford, mining coordinator for the state Department of Natural Resources, in a recent letter to the Canadian Environmental Assessment office.
The June 13 letter refers to a plan announced in January by Redcorp Ventures to use an amphibious tow vessel - or "Amphitrac" - and a hoverbarge to access the mine. Redcorp has also already awarded contracts to begin detailed design and construction of the vessels, with the first ones to be completed by December, according to a June 4 company press release.
Crafford's letter is similar to others from the U.S. Department of Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency and two memos written by Department of Fish and Game biologists, who posed numerous questions.
The queries were about preliminary and draft permit applications on the barge's potential impact on the area, particularly fish habitat, which is critical for the sustainability of the $8 million commercial and sport fishery.
Among the concerns included:
"Video footage of the barge on hover shows that it sprays a substantial amount of water out from inside the skirting ... fish occupying shallow areas may not be able to escape into deeper water for shelter.
"Because there is no history of operation in this type of environment, it is not known if the large tow vehicle will produce a wake while moving upstream against the current of the river."
Potential effect on the fish stock assessment program at Canyon Island that has been in place for 25 years. "There is concern that the wheels might be damaged or completely destroyed if the barge wanders even a little off track."
Proposal to remove snags and do route maintenance could affect critical fish and bird habitat.
Two Fish and Game biologists, Kevin Monagle and Brian Glynn, went so far as to recommend against permitting the project.
"The potential for damaging and/or destroying sensitive fish and wildlife habitat from both the air cushion barge and the Amphitrac tugs in unacceptably high," Monagle said.
Expressing such an opinion was "inappropriate," said the department's commissioner.
"Please advise your staff to stick to the facts, and to the biology and fishery management issues when asked to comment on these types of projects and permits and to remain silent on eventual policy and permitting decisions unless very specifically asked," said Fish and Game Commissioner Denby Lloyd in an e-mail to Scott Kelley, region supervisor for Southeast Alaska commercial fisheries division.
"It is interesting to us that we haven't even applied and biologists are expressing concern," said Tim Davies, manager of environmental and regulatory affairs for the Vancouver-based company.
Glynn said that he was just doing his job as a biologist who evaluates fish resources and demonstrating that there was not enough information to know what effect such a unique project would have on the area.
"I probably shouldn't have said this permit shouldn't be issued," he said. "I would like to give them the benefit of the doubt."
Redcorp is expected to release a second volume of data and research in mid-July.
Crafford said that all agencies involved have felt the need for more information and more detail about the mine's transportation plan.
"Volume two is intended to be the meat, with a much greater level of detail. Hopefully that will address much of the issues of concern," he said.
Davies said Redcorp is also hopeful the document will answer the questions that have been raised.
Chris Zimmer of Rivers Without Borders, a transboundary water watchdog group, said the recent memos and letters reveal how questionable the hoverbarge proposal is.
"I can't imagine how Redcorp can meet its optimistic project schedule given this level of scrutiny and the entire hoverbarge proposal is now in question," he said.
The transportation plan requires Alaska Title 41 and land-use permits. A Title 41 permit is required for activities around streams that might impact fish. The land-use permit will address potential affects to state lands.
The project must also undergo the Alaska Coastal Zone Consistency Review.
Brittany Retherford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 523-2276.