Redfern in the hot seat over Tulsequah

The owners of a controversial mine project near Atlin, BC, are facing tough questions about how their proposed barge route down the Taku River will…

The owners of a controversial mine project near Atlin, BC, are facing tough questions about how their proposed barge route down the Taku River will affect salmon stocks.

Redfern Resources Ltd. proposes to haul supplies and ore rich in zinc, copper and lead year-round down the shallow, braided Taku from the site of its Tulsequah Chief mine, 160 kilometres north of Atlin, to Juneau, Alaska.

But, following a public meeting recently held in Juneau in which many concerns were aired, Alaskan regulators on Wednesday stopped the clock of the current environmental review and requested more information from the company.

The company has cleared most regulatory hurtles in Canada. But it still must receive the green light from regulators in Alaska, where conservationists, fishers and legislators have expressed concerns about the company’s transportation plans.

Tugboats would haul barges during the summer. In winter, tractors and treaded vehicles would haul along the river’s gravel banks a hoverbarge, designed to float upon a cushion of air.

Many important questions remain unanswered about the environmental impact of the project, said Chris Zimmer, a spokesman for Rivers Without Borders.

“They’re saying there won’t be many effects. With so many questions and so few answers, I don’t know how they can say that,” he said.

Of particular concern are the plans to haul supplies and ore during the winter months, when the river runs low.

The Taku is among Alaska’s most-productive salmon-spawning rivers. And, while most salmon spawn beyond the mine, many juvenile salmon are believed to spend the winter months along the barge route.

The company insists its heavy machinery will have little impact upon salmon habitat. Zimmer has trouble believing it.

He fears the tractors and treaded vehicles will make a mess of the gravel beds and shrubs that are the habitat of young salmon during higher waters. “Every little piece of wood is a hiding place for a juvenile salmon,” he said.

Equipment operators are also expected to cross several leads in the river ice. But such tractors and treaded vehicles have little manoeuvrability in water, according to operators who use such vehicles on Alaska’s North Slope, said Zimmer. This raises fears of an accident in which a vehicle may lose control and float down-river, said Zimmer.

“If they need to start swimming around in the river, that’s a real problem,” he said.

Concerns have also been raised about the company’s summer barging plans. This past summer, when the company began to tug supplies to the mine site, it was only able to make a fraction of the trips it had intended.

On several occasions tugboats ran aground. And, in one case, several onlookers watched as one tugboat nearly capsized while crossing a whirlpool in the river.

The company downplayed the incident. But these incidences do not inspire much confidence in an operation that will use similar tugboats to haul chemicals poisonous to salmon, such as diesel fuel and cyanide, to the mine, said Zimmer.

He’s far from being the only opponent to the mine.

Fisheries representatives have expressed fear that the project may jeopardize an industry that is worth millions of dollars annually to Alaskans.

And Alaska Senator Kim Elton and two members of the state’s House of Representatives have called on regulators to give the company’s proposal a more lengthy public review. Now, it appears regulators are heeding this advice.

Contact John Thompson at johnt@yukon-news.com.