Chieftain reiterates: No mine without a road

Courtesy Rivers without Borders

An email from a Canadian mine developer to the Taku River Fact Finding Task Force has flummoxed some members and Juneau’s senator, but the company official who wrote it says it’s just semantics.

The group over the weekend produced its final report. The task force was created last fall by Juneau legislators to address potential impacts of development in the Taku River watershed, particularly from the Tulsequah Chief Mine in British Columbia.

Rosemarie Alexander takes a look at the confusion that beset the group as it wrapped up its work.

Chieftain Metals’ Chief Operating Officer Keith Boyle recently emailed his comment on the task force draft report: “The financing is not conditional on a road. The project cannot be financed with a barging system that cannot deliver product to market.”

In January, Boyle told the task force that financiers will not loan money for the Tulsequah mine project if it depends on barging equipment up the Taku River to the mine, and barging product down the river to market.

The old mine at the headwaters of the Taku River shut down in the 1950s. Chieftain hopes it will be back in production by 2015.

Boyle couldn’t have been clearer in his January report to the eight-member citizen committee.

“The mine won’t go without the road,” he said by teleconference from his Toronto office.

His March 16 email, he thought, just clarified the point.

Juneau Senator Dennis Egan took it differently.

“It upset me very much when I saw that email. As far as I’m concerned that is absolutely not what was told to us on the Taku River Task Force,” Egan said at Saturday’s meeting, called to finalize the report.

Task Force facilitator Kevin Ritchie said Boyle, perhaps, “changed his mind.”

Neither the task force nor Egan have called Boyle for an interpretation of the email, and it appears only as a comment in the final task force report.

Boyle said Monday in an interview with KTOO that nothing has changed since he spoke to the committee three months ago.

“I have said that before. There’s no mine without a road, because barging does not work,” he said.

Late last spring, Chieftain loaded equipment on barges to be transported up the river to the mine site. A few loads made it, but the rest were stymied by low water and bad weather.

While Boyle has said the Taku River is too undependable, some task force observers, including Chris Zimmer of Rivers without Borders, interpret the email as implying “there might be a barge transportation contingency plan if the road doesn’t work.”

Boyle said his message has been consistent.

“I just wanted to clarify to people the use of the term ‘financing is conditional.’ The way it lands for me is we have the financing upon getting the road. Well, the road is part of a project as a whole, it’s not its own little beast on the side here,” Boyle said. “At the end of the day, there’s no project without a road, because barging does not work.”

When Chieftain Metals bought the Tulsequah Chief Mine out of receivership it inherited permits from previous owner Redfern Resources. The most controversial is a road from Atlin, B.C. to the mine, through Taku River First Nations territory.

The company last month submitted a new route to the B.C. provincial and Canadian environmental assessment agencies. It avoids many of the most contentious places, and is within an area included in a land use agreement signed last summer between the B.C. government and the Taku River Tlingit.

The final application is due soon then the B.C. government will take public comments on the road. Boyle is hopeful environmental regulators will grant the permit sometime in the next few months.

Representatives for the Taku River Tlingit have not responded to reporters’ phone calls regarding the road.

In the meantime, Chieftain still plans to barge loads up the Taku River beginning in late May, as water levels permit. He also told the task force in January that the company would barge its last loads to the site this summer.

“That’s still the plan, to get equipment to site so we could start building a road this summer,” Boyle said.

Task force to stay in place
The Taku River Fact Finding Task Force final report may not be the end of the group’s work. Even if Tulsequah gets its permits and a road is built, a separate company has plans to open a mine at the headwaters of the international river.

Task Force member Richard Yamada, representing charter fishermen, says he’s less concerned about the impacts of summer barging than future development on the B.C. side of the river. Alaska has no jurisdiction over Canadian projects.

“What’s happening above the river probably in the long term is going to have a greater risk and we need to get some kind of control over that, or some understanding about what kind of risk it presents us,” Yamada said.

Though the task force has answered the initial questions presented when it was created by Juneau’s legislative delegation, it has not disbanded. Members said they would be willing to stay together for future discussions on the Taku River.