Redfern Resources wants to float minerals to Juneau, Alaska, rather than truck them to Skagway.
The Vancouver-based exploration company, which owns the mothballed Tulsequah Chief mine along the Taku River, has abruptly abandoned controversial plans to build a 160-kilometre access road from Atlin, British Columbia, to the mine it hopes to re-open.
In an economic feasibility study released Monday, Redfern outlines a new proposal to ship minerals from the Tulsequah Chief property using British-designed hover barges and custom built “amphitrack” tugboats — complete with retractable wheels to allow them to drive over ice while churning down the Taku River in the winter.
The idea solves two main problems for Redfern: it allows the company to jettison the decade-old road proposal and its many detractors, and it could also reduce costs by up to $46 million every year, said company president Terry Chandler.
“It was controversial; we had lots of opposition to the road,” conceded Chandler in a frank interview Thursday.
“It really came down to concern over land-use … you know, was the road going to change the nature of the area? That was the concern from the (Taku River Tlingit) First Nation perspective, and non-governmental organizations.”
Because of the road, “We got wrapped up in a much bigger political sphere than the project wanted to be in,” said Chandler.
Redfern’s $49-million road proposal won approval from the BC government in 1998 and 2002. But opposition from the Taku River Tlingit First Nation and environmental watchdogs has been fierce.
The First Nation even took the BC government to the Supreme Court of Canada to try to have the approval revoked, but lost.
Redfern, unsurprisingly, is happy to put the road in the past. But the idea to use the river as a transport route — just as the previous operators of the Tulsequah Chief mine did in the 1950s — arrived by accident, said Chandler.
“This was almost serendipity,” he said.
Last year, Redfern was trying to figure out how to bring road-construction equipment to the mine site before ice on the Taku River broke. Ideas for hovercrafts and heavy-lift helicopters were bandied about, but abandoned.
Someone even proposed using a blimp.
Then a consultant said a little-known hover barge might do the trick. Lights started going on.
“We hadn’t heard of it before,” said Chandler.
A representative from a British company that builds the hover barges visited the proposed mine, and it soon became clear the barges wouldn’t be used to transport machinery to build a road, they would make the road unnecessary, he said.
“We have concluded at the end of all of this, that the technology is very doable, and will allow us to access the site on a year-round basis,” said Chandler.
The hover barges, designed by Hover Trans in the United Kingdom, will basically float atop, not in, the shallow waters of the Taku River, he said.
The barges exert about five pounds-per-square-inch of pressure on the ground or water, less than a human walking. They will haul loads between 300-450 tonnes of concentrate, and will be containerized to ensure any mineral concentrates remain on the barge in unlikely case of an accident in the shallow Taku River, he said.
“The key issue is the tug — could we design the tug to have a shallow enough draft that it would be able to deal with those conditions?” said Chandler.
“We are absolutely convinced that’s the case.”
If the plan gets the green light from the BC government’s environmental regulators, the company hopes to start operations with one barge and one tugboat, but ideally, would bring on a second barge and have three tugboats to eliminate downtime and increase productivity, he said.
Costs are estimated at $15 million for the entire transport system.
Trips downriver from the mine site to Juneau, however, would be “infrequent” and have minimal impacts on other users of the waters, added Chandler.
But while environmental groups are applauding the decision to scrap the road, the barge proposal raises new questions about impacts on the salmon-bearing Taku River, and whether a long-demanded cleanup of Tulsequah mine will ever be completed.
The new barge plan sees one environmental ill replaced with an environmental unknown, said David MacKinnon, executive director of the Transboundary Watershed Alliance in Whitehorse.
“We’re very happy the road proposal’s been scrapped because it was a very unacceptable to build that road into that watershed, and the impacts were never properly assessed,” said MacKinnon. “But the new barging option raises a whole lot of questions.”
Those questions focus on the effects of a 10-kilometre road the company needs to build from the mine to the river, and the impacts barges will have on the river itself and those who use it, said MacKinnon.
“When you’re going to haul mineral concentrate down a major salmon-producing river, through the operations of both Canadian and Alaskan commercial fishing operations, there’s a whole lot of questions that are going to have to be answered around whether that’s a good thing to do,” he said.
“We don’t have those answers right now.”
The alliance is calling for a bi-national environmental assessment of Redfern’s plan by BC, Canada and the United States.
It hopes the company is held to a higher standard than previous assessments, said MacKinnon.
The Tulsequah Chief mine opened in 1951 and closed in 1957.
It has long been breaking federal laws as acid leaches from the mine into the Taku River, but Ottawa has been reticent to crack down on the company, he added.
When Redfern purchased the property from Cominco in 1992, it inherited its riches and also its mess. And Chandler knows it.
“We are in contravention of the Fisheries Act with respect to a discharge of the acidic waters, which contain metals (into the Taku River),” he said, noting the company has received several orders from Environment Canada to mitigate the impacts the toxic water is having on the nearby river.
But the only way to effectively clean up the mine and block the source of the acidic waters is to redevelop the Tulsequah Chief into an operating mine, then properly seal it off, said Chandler.
“It’s the only solution that anyone has identified,” he said.
“The government bodies that have been dealing with this … we’ve frankly said, ‘Do you have any other solution?’
“The only solution that anyone’s come up with is ours.”