The Tulsequah Chief mine missed a Canadian deadline to clean up its toxic metal pollution on Thursday.
So far, though, it has avoided a federal crackdown.
If all goes as planned, Redfern Resources Ltd. today will finish installing a passive treatment system in the mine's lowest-elevation tunnel to remove up to 90 percent of the toxic metals leaching out through its adits, according to company president Terry Chandler. The pollution was supposed to have been treated by now.
The Tulsequah Chief, 40 miles northeast of Juneau, closed in 1957 and leaks an estimated 15 tons of copper, lead, zinc, cadmium and arsenic per year into the Tulsequah River. Federal regulators originally ordered Redfern, which has struggled to reopen it, to stop its "deleterious discharge" to the river by Sept. 30, 2003. The company requested and got an extension until June 30 this year.
"This is a little bit disconcerting," Alaska state Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, said of the deadline troubles.
He said the Canadian government needs to work with U.S. officials for a better plan. "There's a real disconnect."
The treatment system - a series of limestone beds - won't remove all the pollutants immediately and it won't work forever, Chandler said.
His company hasn't figured out how to clean up its Big Bull mine property, which is leaching a smaller quantity of toxic metals into a side channel of the Taku River, he said.
Chandler said if the company reopens the Tulsequah, it will install a more expensive sludge treatment system that would permanently resolve the historic toxic mine discharges.
In a public meeting in Juneau this year, Canadian officials assured residents that they are managing the Tulsequah appropriately. But, "How appropriate can it be when a major deadline isn't met?" Elton said.
The mine needs to go through a bilateral review, Elton said, but U.S. federal officials will need to force Canadians to the negotiating table before that will ever happen.
Canadian authorities have rebuffed previous requests for review of the Tulsequah mine by the International Joint Commission, a U.S.-Canadian panel.
Environment Canada, the federal agency that ordered the cleanup at the Tulsequah and the Big Bull mines in 2002, plans to run an inspection soon at the Tulsequah, said Mike Nassichuk, regional director of the agency's environmental protection branch.
If the new passive treatment system renders the Tulsequah's discharges nonlethal to fish and results in low metal concentrations, the company could be ruled in compliance with the cleanup order, Nassichuk said.
Otherwise, there's a range of penalties that could include prosecution in federal court, he said.
At this point, though, the mine's critics say they can't take Redfern or Environment Canada seriously.
"When is this thing ever going to get cleaned up?" said Chris Zimmer, a Juneau activist with the Transboundary Watershed Alliance.
"If Redfern is saying the only way to really clean it up is to reopen the mine, but doing it is not economically viable, then this is really a mess," Zimmer said.
Redfern has been attempting to reopen the multimetal mine amid legal challenges and heavy criticism from Tlingit groups, environmentalists and politicians on both sides of the border.
One criticism of the Redfern project is that it would put mine tailings into a large impoundment in a flood plain of the Tulsequah River, a tributary of the Taku River.
Gillnet fishermen and other Juneau residents worry that the tailings could someday get loose and contaminate the Taku River system, which serves up several lucrative fisheries to Juneau's gillnet fleet.
Redfern is on track to get approval from federal regulators for the project but suffered a major economic setback when a recent feasibility study showed it was uneconomic. Chandler said he is now looking for new financial partners to help develop the mine.
In spite of the uncertainty over the mine's economic future, federal Canadian regulators said this week that they will finalize the mine's environmental assessment within days.
That will allow the permitting process to begin, said Sue Farlinger, the regional director for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans' Habitat and Enforcement Branch.
Chandler said getting approval for the mine's environmental assessment could help possible investors look at his project in a better light.
He said Redfern cannot proceed with a permanent fix for its pollution now because it can't afford it and needs a lot of power generation and a road in order to run a treatment plant.
Redfern hopes to install a a high-density sludge treatment plant, which works by running batches of contaminated water through filters, neutralizing the water's acid content and trapping all of the heavy metals.
The contaminated residues would then be collected and backfilled into the mine behind walls of cement, Chandler said.
"There's no doubt that it's more effective" than the system the company is now installing, he said.
Zimmer said federal regulators need to ask hard questions about whether the company will follow through on its assurances.
"Redfern's financial ills also call into question whether (it) can pay for the expensive water treatment plan and other mitigation measures they committed to during the approval process. We hope Canadian officials see the danger in approving a project that can't pay for itself," he said.