Palin urges Canadians to address mine's acid drainage

Mine company Redfern was responsible, but ran out of money

Posted: Sunday, July 12, 2009

Gov. Sarah Palin recently urged British Columbia's premier not to forget that the Tulsequah Chief mine upstream of Juneau is still draining toxic acid into the headwaters of the fish-rich Taku River, as it has for a half-century.

Palin's July 1 letter was prompted by the insolvency of Redfern Resources Ltd. and its parent company, Vancouver-based Redcorp Ventures Ltd. The mine company was supposed to clean up the old 1950s gold mine on the way to building its new one but ran out of money.

"In order to protect downstream water quality and assure the continued health of the valuable Taku River fisheries, the state of Alaska feels other means must be promptly implemented for remediating the Tulsequah Chief (acid mine drainage)," Palin's letter says.

The mine is 45 miles northeast of Juneau in British Columbia.

When metals prices dropped in the 1950s, then-owner Cominco, now Teck Cominco Ltd., stopped mining and sold the property to Redcorp. Acidic water leaches metals from the rock that drains into the Tulsequah River, down the Taku River and into Southeast Alaska.

That metals-laden water kills fish, as Canadian inspectors have known since 1990. An Environment Canada inspector learned that his May 14 samples of the discharge caused "100 percent mortality in fish in less than three hours," according to his affidavit. As soon as the results came back, the agency ordered Redcorp, as it had done in past years, to stop the drainage.

Sulphuric acid occurs naturally, but in much greater quantities when construction disturbs and grinds up rock. Recent flow measurements showed the mine was leaking about 8.3 liters per second of acid. That's about 190,000 gallons a day and 69.1 million gallons per year of acidic water loaded with zinc, copper, cadmium and arsenic heading downstream.

It may sound like a lot, said state large mine permitting coordinator Tom Crafford, "but frankly it's not, when you consider the volumes of water that are moving in those drainages." Flows vary widely but average about 900 million gallons a day, according to a U.S. Geological Service study.

"Regardless," he said, "that is pollution that is being allowed to drain into the waters. And fundamentally, we don't like that."

In late 2008, Redcorp brought a water treatment plant to the mine site. It would treat the water coming out of the mine during construction, and it would be expanded once the mine was in production. It was never installed and construction halted in December.

Bankrupt Redcorp asked British Columbia's Supreme Court to be allowed to spend $4.5 million to finish that plant and treat the drainage. It would cost about $1 million a year to operate, mostly for fuel, Crafford noted.

But the court denied the company's petition and on May 29 appointed Toronto-based McIntosh & Morawetz Inc. as Redcorp's third party custodian.

What McIntosh & Morawetz will do about the Tulsequah's acid is not clear.

The firm's main duty is to handle Redcorp's debts. The Supreme Court's appointment order says McIntosh & Morawetz is "not exempt" from laws on "health, safety and the environment," but does not specifically mention orders to clean up the acid.

Calls to McIntosh & Morawetz were not immediately returned Friday afternoon.

Along with Palin's letter, Alaska Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Irwin wrote asking McIntosh & Morawetz not to sell off the water treatment plant or destroy access to the site, either of which would make it more expensive to stop the drainage later.

Chris Zimmer of the environmental group Rivers Without Borders has been a Taku watchdog and frequent critic of Redcorp's plans. He commended Palin and her administration for bringing up the Tulsequah drainage, but said it would take "much more than a letter to get them to honor their responsibilities." He's hoping for stronger protection of the Taku salmon's spawning habitat, which lie in British Columbia.

"We urge DNR and the new governor to keep the pressure on the Canadians," he said.

• Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or kate.golden@juneauempire.com.



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