The fact-finding group meets Thursday evening for the first time since Juneau legislators created it in September. A second meeting is scheduled for Saturday.
The eight-member task force will primarily gather facts about the salmon-producing Taku River. One catalyst is mine redevelopment on the Canadian side. The Tulsequah Chief closed down in the 1950s, and acid mine drainage has been a concern since. Mine owners Chieftain Metals installed a treatment plant at the site this fall, and water coming out of the old mine is now being treated.
The issue that seems to have Juneau most anxious is barging. Former Tulsequah owner Redfern Resources proposed an air-cushion, or Hover barge, towed up the Taku River by an amphibious vehicle. But Redfern went bankrupt and Chieftain Metals announced last year that they want year round road access to the mine. Chief Operating Officer Keith Boyle says even traditional barging up the Taku – as the company did last summer – is difficult.
“Our preference is the overland route, just simply because it’s a much lower risk alternative for the operation. We’ve seen a huge variability in what Mother Nature has dealt in terms of river levels and the ability to barge,” Boyle says. “The financial communities are nervous when they see you can’t get your product to market in a consistent manner.”
Chieftain last year struck an agreement with Taku River Tlingit First Nation that covered mine exploration, water treatment and employment. But the company is still negotiating on a road through First Nation territory. It could be years before a road is ever built.
Chris Zimmer is Alaska Director for Rivers without Borders. He says the state must make sure barging doesn’t harm the river and salmon resource.
“It raises all kinds of issues about spills, of diesel fuel and toxic materials and groundings and damage to habitat, so we really want to see the task force take this on, and understand that barging will happen for the next few years and very likely beyond that,” Zimmer says. “That’s something Alaska doesn’t really have a regulatory or permitting handle on.”
The task force is an outgrowth of an effort last year to create a legislative group to study Taku River issues. Meetings between sport and commercial fishermen, and property owners, proved to be very contentious. Juneau legislators said it was clear everyone needed more information and less opinion before any new river protections could be considered.
Task force facilitator Kevin Ritchie says the group will hear about river habitat and salmon stocks as well as current regulatory protections, which are not clear.
“So this is going to be a very valuable process of determining exactly the types of things that will occur if there are specific industrial or other types of issues that involve the Taku River,” Ritchie says.
Chieftain Metals C-O-O Boyle is expected to participate by teleconference in Saturday’s task force meeting. The company is headquartered in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and has offices in Vancouver and Atlin, British Columbia.
The Taku River Fact-Finding Task Force will meet Thursday from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., and Saturday, from 9 a.m. to noon, in House Finance chambers at the state capitol.