Empire editorial: Hoverbarge shouldn't be tested on Taku

Posted: Sunday, December 16, 2007

The plan to transport minerals out of the Tulsequah Chief Mine is futuristic, to say the least.

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A newly designed, amphibious vehicle would cruise along the Taku River. It would haul a hoverbarge filled with material unearthed in Canada and bound for smelting in Asia.

Given the novelty of the machines, we're curious to see what happens when the public comment period begins on Tuesday for this project.

As we picture the machines advancing over one of Southeast Alaska's most important salmon-bearing waterways, we can't help but propose that Redfern Resources use tried, tested transportation. The Taku River is priceless and should not be the scene of vehicular experimentation.

Redfern's preliminary public information pamphlets were printed earlier this year. Concept illustrations showed a contraption creeping over sheets of ice. It looked like a tank propelled by gigantic screws. The invention was called an "Amphitrac," and it would pull the hoverbarge.

A Redfern executive spoke on Thursday at a Juneau Chamber of Commerce luncheon, and business owners greeted his comments favorably. They were especially pleased by Redfern Chief Operating Officer Richard Goodwin's claim the project would generate $2 million a month for city businesses.

"You are our Wal-Mart," he told them. "You are our shopping store."

Nevertheless, we feel conflicted.

Innovation is great. Profit is great. But so is the Taku River's role in the cycle of salmon. According to a McDowell Group report issued in 2004, the yearly economic effect from commercial and recreational activities on the Taku River is $26.7 million. That's a lot of money to risk, even if the reward promises to be substantial.

We're not ready to believe that the project will line our pockets with riches. While it's a nice thought, we want some proof, something more than a quick quote from an executive.

Juneau environmentalists expressed some concerns about the project, mostly because they said a vehicle like the Amphitrac has never been used in an environment like that along the Taku River.

Chris Zimmer of Rivers Without Borders summed it up: "Redfern is basically asking 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."

To Redfern's credit, the company is pitching the Amphitrac and the hoverbarge in part because the vehicles are expected to cause less damage to the environment than conventional transport. A road wouldn't have to be built. The effect on salmon spawning grounds would be minimal, according to the company.

Perhaps a futuristic solution is just what Southeast Alaska needs for its mining disputes. But we're uneasy.

We'll see where Juneau stands pretty soon. A public meeting about Redferns' plans will be held on Jan. 8 in Centennial Hall.

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