A Canadian mining company is seeking state permits to operate a hoverbarge on Southeast Alaska's most productive salmon-bearing river, but fishermen and environmentalists are expected to raise questions about it during a public comment period that begins next week.
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Redfern Resources Chief Operating Officer Richard Goodwin described the company's plan for the Taku River on Thursday at a Juneau Chamber of Commerce luncheon. He courted local business owners, saying the project would generate $2 million a month for the city.
"You are our Wal-Mart," Goodwin said. "You are our shopping store."
Vancouver, British Columbia-based Redfern Resources Ltd. has proposed using a specially designed Amphitrac and Air Cushion Barge to access the Tulsequah Chief Mine in Canada via the Taku River. The company filed for a land use permit and a fish habitat permit with the Alaska Department of Natural Resources to move forward with the mine located roughly 40 miles northeast of Juneau.
The Alaskan Coastal Management Program Consistency Review and the public comment period will begin on Tuesday. A public meeting will be held in Juneau on Jan. 8 at Centennial Hall to discuss the issue.
Goodwin said the company proposed to use the Taku River to access the mine after opposition arose to a 100-mile road from Atlin, B.C., to the mine site. The company is constructing a 60-by-30-foot amphibious vessel that it intends to use to tow a 200-by-90-foot hovercraft-barge to carry ore from the Canadian mine site to United States waters before being sent to Asian smelters.
Goodwin contends the new transportation plan will result in less environmental effects and a reduction in costs for the multimillion-dollar mine project.
"This transportation system has been chosen so they don't have to build the road," said Liz Arnold, a spokeswoman for Pac/West Communications, a public relations firm hired by Redfern. "The road has far more environmental impacts, is more expensive, all those things."
The mining company is building an amphibious vehicle based off the design of vehicles used on the North Slope that are designed to have a minimal effect on the tundra. The amphibious vehicle and barge would minimally affect the salmon rearing and spawning grounds of the Taku River, Arnold said.
"This is the most environmentally friendly way of accessing the mine with new technology that we hope will have the least amount of impact environmentally across the board," she said.
Environmentalists contend that the Taku River is a far too precious natural resource to allow what they described as unproven technology to be used in Alaska waters.
"Redfern is basically asking the state of Alaska to allow the Taku to be the experiment or lab for this technology, and it's too valuable of a river to be the guinea pig," said Chris Zimmer, of Rivers Without Boarders.
The mining company's transportation plan would result in the amphibious vessel and barge periodically crossing over land and through shallow waters in sensitive fish habitat. Redfern contends the new vessel would have a minimal effect on the river.
Elizabeth Dubovsky of Trout Unlimited said it is unclear what potential effects the plan would have on the river because the proposed vessel has never been used in an environment similar to the Taku River. The plan is a very real risk to the river and local fisheries, she said.
"We need to take extra measures to protect our resources before we screw them up and then have to go back and fix them," Dubovsky said. "It is a lot easier to prevent something than to fix it."
Bruce Wallace, environmental chairman for the United Fishermen of Alaska, said the organization did not believe the plan sounded feasible when first introduced. The group now has some concerns over the applications of the technology, he said.
"The hoverbarge option for Redfern creates a great deal of concern for UFA, and we're going to look at it a lot more closely because it seems like it has some vitality," he said. "Apparently it has some legs, from what I understand."
Kevin Monagle, Juneau area management biologist for commercial fisheries for Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said the agency has concerns with Redfern's transportation plan and submitted a memorandum to the Department of Natural Resources last week requesting additional information from the mining company. The Taku River is the single-largest producer of salmon in Southeast Alaska, he said.
"There isn't a piece of equipment or vehicle like this in existence, so it is something we would like to see field-tested," he said.
The agency wants more information to determine what physical disturbance the amphibious vessel and barge may produce during operation because the company intends to navigate in shallow water in close proximity to fish habitat, Monagle said.
"I think there are a lot of tests we'd like to see done to confirm the potential or lack of potential impacts or effects that it could have on the environment," he said.
Goodwin said the vessels would have little wake disturbance, produce minimal noise and would primarily operate in the main channel of the river, away from the spawning grounds.
"We've gone to long lengths to make sure that we protect the environment," he said. "We do not want to disrupt anybody's current activities, either recreational or commercial."
The project would be economically beneficial for Juneau, Goodwin said. By using the Taku River to access the mine and using Juneau as a staging area, the community could see a $2 million boost to the economy each month, he said.
The mine has a life expectancy of roughly eight years that could extend to 15 years, he added.
Zimmer and Dubovsky said the overall economic risk is far greater than the short-term financial gains if the Taku River fisheries are jeopardized. A McDowell Group report issued in September of 2004 estimates the total economic effect from commercial fishing, sport fishing, tourism and recreation on the Taku River is $26.7 million annually.
"We've got so much more to lose than to gain, so we hope the state of Alaska sets the bar very high for the company here," Zimmer said.
Tom Crafford, acting large mine coordinator for the Department of Natural Resources, said the 30-day public comment period that begins Tuesday will end Jan. 16. The agency expects the Alaskan Coastal Management Program Consistency Determination to be issued on Feb. 5.
"The major concern for all of us is that there are not negative impacts to the Taku River fisheries," he said. "That's the primary concern."
The public needs to weigh in on the issue because this decision could forever alter the future of the Taku River and its fisheries, Dubovsky said.
"Juneau needs to decide where the future of the Taku is going, and where the future of Juneau is going," she said. "The clock is starting, and the time is going to be ticking over the holidays whether we want it or not."
Contact Eric Morrison at 523-2269 or firstname.lastname@example.org.