Environmental officials in Alaska and provincial officials in British Columbia recently started reviewing applications for the Tulsequah Chief Mine's proposed hoverbarge that could tote ore down the salmon-bearing Taku River.
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"This is what we've been waiting for," said Tom Crafford, large mine coordinator for the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.
The owners of the Canadian mine hope to begin mining copper, zinc, lead, silver and gold as soon as they find a way to get the ore concentrate to market. Located at the confluence of the Tulsequah and Taku rivers, 19 miles upstream from where the Taku River enters the United States, the mine is being developed by Redfern Resources Ltd., a subsidiary of Vancouver, Canada's Redcorp Ventures Ltd.
The first plan was to reach the mine with a long access road through snowy Canadian mountains, but that has since been shelved in favor of shipping the ore down river on a hoverbarge.
Crafford called that a "novel plan" and noted that it was untried in local waters.
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The hoverbarge is an unusual vessel that rides on a cushion of air and can transit the river even at low water.
That means it may be able to pass through the environmentally sensitive estuary with minimal effect on the environment.
The barge will be towed during high water by a shallow-draft tug and by an "amphitrac" during most of the year. The amphitrac is an amphibious vehicle that can move from water to dry ground.
The ore will come to the Alaska Marine Lines terminal in Juneau, said Salina Landstad, spokesperson for Redcorp Ventures, the mine's developer.
Sealed containers will carry the ore concentrate from the mine to Juneau, where they'll be put on a commercial barge line for shipment to Skagway, she said.
From there they'll be loaded onto oceangoing freighters at the bulk ore export terminal there, she said.
Redcorp announced the hoverbarge plan last year, but a lack of detail created concern about how it would affect the environment. The environmental group Rivers Without Borders expressed skepticism about the plan, and biologists with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game were chastised by their bosses for recommending denial of the permits.
Landstad said the new plan for barge shipment will be cheaper for the company, but it also will be safer and have less environmental impact than a long, difficult-to-maintain road.
"Maintenance requirements of the road, especially in the winter, will be a lot more costly," she said. Weather conditions, including ice formation, could suspend travel on the road.
She said the company expected to ship one 300-ton barge load of ore per day, on average, but that could be delayed if needed to avoid environmental problems or conflicts with the productive Taku River fishery.
State fisheries experts say the Taku River is the most productive salmon river in Southeast.
Crafford said he just received the project description and hasn't yet been able to do more than review its cover pages, but he is eager to see if the dozens of pages of documents, maps and data answer the questions they had about the unusual hoverbarge and amphitrac.
"I'm hoping that it has the meat to it, the content, that we've been wanting to see," he said.
Fish and Game staff said their colleagues who would review the plan are working in the field and have not reviewed it yet. Rivers without Borders was unavailable for comment Thursday.
Crafford said Alaska would be considering not just the impact of the barge traffic itself, but effect on the river and salmon spawning grounds. It also would be considering whether the mine itself might have negative consequences downstream in the United States.
"The state of Alaska has a role in the review of Canadian mining projects that have potential transboundary implications," he said.
That right comes from an international treaty, he said.
Redfern Resources has not yet submitted formal permit applications in Alaska, Crafford said. The state will informally tell Redfern whether its application needs more documentation before it gets to that stage, but Crafford said he didn't know how long that would take.
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