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Taku barging – Here We Go Again!

Chris Zimmer : Nov 10.2014



November 10, 2014

Chris Zimmer,, 907/586-2166


Taku River Barging Faces Renewed Opposition in Alaska

(Juneau)  Chieftain Metals’, on October 20, announced an update to the December 2012 feasibility study for the proposed Tulsequah Chief mine. The most significant change is a plan to access the mine using barges on the Taku River, rather than via an access road to Atlin, British Columbia.

“This flip-flop from road to barge is very surprising. None of the barging efforts by Chieftain in 2011 and previous mine owner Redfern in 2007 and 2008 worked as planned and Chieftain’s own access report concluded in 2011 that none of the barging options were practical,” said Chris Zimmer of Rivers Without Borders. “The threat of salmon habitat damage from groundings and accidents, as well as spills of diesel fuel, cyanide and other chemicals, will certainly raise concerns in Juneau.”

Redfern tug tips over while hauling a barge on the Taku River. Tug pilots scramble to top of the tug as it capsizes. Photo dated July 1, 2008 courtesy of Dale Douglas. Click on photo to view in larger format.

Redfern tug tips over while hauling a barge on the Taku River. Tug pilots scramble to top of the tug as it capsizes. Photo dated July 1, 2008 courtesy of Dale Douglas. Click on photo to view in larger format.

Concentrate and supplies would be shipped to and from the mine using conventional river barges for five months a year, with concentrate to be barged to Seattle for export to Asia. Few details about the proposed barging plan have been provided. A Technical Report will be released by December 4.

Chieftain’s October 2011 assessment of several barging alternatives concluded none of the options would work. The assessment isn’t publicly available, but a Chieftain briefing paper from January 2012 summarized the results of the study:

“The Downstream Access Practicability Assessment Report, which was completed in October 2011,…concluded that none of the barging options were practical due to low flow levels on the river which are insufficient to sustain operational requirements….Additionally, the economic and financial implications put the project at risk of being unable to proceed.”

Chieftain’s own Feasibility Study from December 2012 raises several significant problems with barging:

  • “Regarding the 2013 (and to a lesser extent, 2014) barging campaign, there is a risk the river levels will not support a four to six week campaign.”
  • “…the Tulsequah River is not easily navigated due to high and variable flows, debris hazards, and shallow areas…would require more or less continuous dredging during the shipping season to maintain an open channel. The period available to conventional barging varies from year to year, ranging from less than three months to as much as six months;”

“The new plan calls for five months of barging a year, but experience and Chieftain’s own Feasibility Study show this is unrealistic,” added Zimmer. “It is very unlikely Chieftain would be granted Alaska Department of Fish and Game and Army Corps of Engineers permits for river dredging.”

Problems with previous barging include:

  • In May 2008 Redfern announced plans to ship 20,000 tons of supplies to the Tulsequah Chief site in 200 barge loads, yet was only able to accomplish about 30 barge runs due to river conditions. Redfern called this a “key challenge” in announcing third quarter financial results.
  • In 2007 and 2008 there were numerous reports of barge and tug groundings (none of which were reported to the U.S. Coast Guard as required by law). In July 2008 a tug almost capsized.
  • In June 2011, Chieftain was unable to complete all planned barge runs due to low water levels. Chieftain planned 8 trips that fall but couldn’t do any of them due to low water, causing a loss of $750,000.

Since buying the mine in 2010 Chieftain has emphasized a road is vital to mine development and that barging isn’t viable. “Chieftain’s own studies show barging won’t work. Experience to date shows barging on the Taku is extremely challenging and unreliable. This latest plan seems a recognition the mine and road are not economical and is a desperate last ditch attempt from a company that has demonstrated little ability to move this project forward,” said Zimmer.

Redfern’s conventional barging in 2007 and 2008 generated much concern in Juneau. In 2011 Juneau legislators formed the Taku River Task Force to look into concerns about river barging. Chieftain COO Keith Boyle emphasized in his testimony to the Task Force that Chieftain had determined river barging is “impracticable” and investors were not supportive of barging.

The mine would be in northwest British Columbia, very close to the Alaska border and just upstream of some of the Taku River’s premier salmon habitat. The new barging proposal is likely to face strong opposition in Juneau. The Taku is Southeast Alaska’s most productive salmon river and has significant commercial and recreational use. Barging could interfere with commercial, sport and personal use fishing, river navigation, floatplane landings and Alaska Department of Fish and Game research. Fishermen would undoubtedly again raise concerns about habitat damage due to barges grounding and plowing through the river bottom. Accidents and spills of diesel fuel, cyanide and other toxins are a distinct possibility. It is unlikely any kind of river dredging would be approved by regulatory agencies.

“This new barging plan fails to recognize the realities of the Taku River. It is shallow and fast, with frequently changing gravel bars and lots of logjams. The Taku is a tremendous fishery, with a large constituency of users in Southeast Alaska. Chieftain’s barging plan flies in the face of these realities, past experience and Chieftain’s own studies, and it will face a lot of opposition in Juneau,” said Zimmer.

For a pdf version of this release, click here.