Canadian regulators this week approved a controversial environmental assessment to reopen the Tulsequah Chief Mine 40 miles northeast of Juneau.
The mine's developer, Redfern Resources, said Thursday that it had received word from federal regulators that the multimetal project in the Taku River watershed may proceed to its final planning stage.
The mine has been criticized by Tlingit groups, environmentalists and Juneau politicians who are worried that possible pollution from the mine could pollute the Canadian-U.S. watershed and harm Taku salmon fisheries.
Redfern has struggled to redevelop the 1950s-era mine and will not leap immediately into final planning because of a poor economic outlook, according to the company.
The company will not finalize its project designs for the mine until it can reduce construction and operating costs and expand its mineral base, said company president Terry Chandler.
Getting approval for the environmental assessment was a big step toward attracting outside investment in the project, he said. "We're elated. Finally justice has arrived," Chandler said Thursday.
Environmentalists and a Juneau politician decried the federal decision.
"The fight is not over yet but this is certainly a step in the wrong direction," said Nola Poirier, with the Transboundary Watershed Alliance based in Vancouver, British Columbia.
"This is disappointing," said state Rep. Kim Elton, D-Juneau. "I don't think you ought to reward failure," he said, noting the company's difficulties in cleaning up toxic discharges from the historic mine. "The biggest concern for Canadians is that this is a vast, intact ecosystem," Poirier said. "It's kind of unbelievable that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans - whose sole mandate is to protect fish - would make a decision that puts fish in jeopardy."
Canadian federal officials did not respond to calls for comment Thursday.
A short project summary on a Department of Fisheries & Oceans Web site noted that the Tulsequah Chief's environmental assessment had been approved on Monday.
The department started the assessment in Sept. 2000, according to the Web site.
Chandler said federal approval for the project will make it more attractive to new investors. "A lot of people (were) wondering why there was no decision. This provides closure to the environmental assessment questions," Chandler said.
The company recently installed a water treatment system to start cleaning up about 90 percent of the acidic discharges leaking from the mine and creating toxic metal pollution in the nearby Tulsequah River.
"The goal is to make it better," Chandler said, adding that it may take six months or more before the treatment system reaches its peak performance.
He said the system is neutralizing the mine's acidic discharge but the pollution can't be completely cleaned up without improving access to the site with a road and building a sludge treatment plant.
Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.