Tulsequah Chief mine operator Redfern Resources Ltd. finished building a key road this week. And a year after first applying, the company is making progress on Alaska permits to travel on Taku River ice.
The mine is on track to start producing gold, silver, copper, zinc and lead in the fourth quarter of 2009, according to spokeswoman Salina Landstad.
Forty-five miles northeast of Juneau, in British Columbia, the Tulsequah Chief lies on the banks of the Tulsequah River before it runs into the Taku. It was last mined in the 1950s, and Redfern, owned by Vancouver-based Redcorp Ventures Ltd., has been working to reopen it since the early 1990s.
Unlike the 1950s mine, Redfern plans to operate Tulsequah Chief year round. The company plans to do that by barging supplies, equipment and ore out on the Taku between the mine and Juneau.
Redfern needs permits from Alaska only for barge operations in the winter, when the Taku's ice protects the juvenile fish underneath and acts as a corridor for wildlife.
Redfern applied last December to haul supplies across the ice with a hoverbarge. It's supposed to exert little pressure and thus avoid disturbing the ice. The hoverbarge was to be towed by an amphibious vehicle designed for the Taku.
But the permit process and the amphibious vehicle ran into trouble. State officials halted the 50-day review to ask for more information about how the barging would work, and the tow vehicle's construction hit high costs and delays.
The company also faced controversy. Some Taku users worried the barge would break the ice and damage the sensitive habitat it creates.
By mid-summer the company said it wouldn't be using the concept vehicle, and state permitters asked the company to submit a fresh application.
Redfern now plans to move the hoverbarge across ice and open leads with four amphibious vehicles, with two in front to pull, and two behind to push.
"Our operations are the same. It's the tow vehicles that have changed," Landstad said.
This time, Redfern worked more closely with the state. The company started submitting plans in August and got informal feedback for months, before ever starting the official permit review.
"It has been a learning process, certainly, for both parties," said Landstad.
A formal 30-day review clock is expected to start soon, during which the public can comment.
If permitting is uninterrupted this time, Redfern could be allowed on the river in early 2009.
The tow vehicles and hoverbarge are on track to be built and delivered to Juneau by then, and the company plans to test the system in Juneau to prove it performs to specifications before heading to the Taku. Permitters earlier this year mentioned Sheep Creek as one possible spot.
Meanwhile, construction continues at Tulsequah Chief. Finishing the 20-kilometer road means the company can get equipment and machinery to the mine itself from the barge landing site.
Redfern workers this month will build a wastewater treatment plant and waste rock storage facilities, and prepare to build the mine's underground portals.