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By J.p. Tangen
Guest Columnist 

Mining and the Law: The case of the Tulsequah Chief


Last updated 9/24/2006 at Noon

If you have ever thought that the cost of manufactured goods is too low, and wondered what you can do about it, you might consider the case of the Tulsequah Chief prospect in nearby British Columbia. The Tulsequah Chief is an historic mine located up the Tulsequah River, a tributary to the Taku, about 40 miles north of Juneau and about 60 miles south of Atlin, British Columbia.

The Tulsequah Chief was discovered in 1925 and it produced base and precious metals from 1951 to 1957. Over the life of the mine, over 600,000 tons of ore were mined from Tulsequah Chief at an average grade of 0.12 ounces of gold per ton, 4.0 ounces of silver per ton, 1.59 percent copper, 1.54 percent lead and 7.0 percent zinc. Since 1995, Vancouver-based Redfern Resources has been trying to reopen the Tulsequah Chief, in the face of the traditional panoply of obstacles.

To understand a little of the curious nature of the opposition to this project, you have to take a look at where it is. It is not at the end of the earth, but you can clearly see the end of the earth from the portal. It is in the heart of an extremely sparsely populated, 10 million-acre region claimed primarily by members of the Taku River Tlingit First Nation.

Taku empties into Lynn Canal

The Taku River is a fast-flowing, silt-laden river that empties into Lynn Canal. From time to time the Taku Glacier has dammed off this river, forming a great lake behind it. The ice dams then break dramatically. The last time this occurred was in 1750, but it may happen again, because the glacier is advancing.

Opponents to the reopening of the Tulsequah Chief argue that the Taku is a significant salmon stream and that the historic mining operations have led to acid mine drainage.

Further, there are the shopworn arguments about spills and other disasters that may occur.

As usual, these arguments grant little credence to the monumental amount of government oversight that is associated with the opening of any mine, whether in the U.S. or in Canada.

Nor do the opponents give any weight to the necessity for modern mining operations to internalize the many social costs associated with a 250-person operation in a remote location.

Instead, no matter how remote, no matter how small the objective threat, no matter how much in demand the commodity in question may be, the familiar anti-chorus is heard.

Taku viewed as corridor of commerce

Like several other rivers in Southeast Alaska, the Taku has always been viewed, by Europeans and Natives alike as a corridor of commerce. As difficult as the lower Taku may be to navigate, good engineering and sufficient funds could readily construct an overland road along its banks, linking Juneau to Atlin and the North American highway grid. Because of the hostility of the residents of Juneau to the project, however, Redfern has designed a road in to Atlin, and will buy its goods and services on the Canadian side of the border. Reason dictates that the Tulsequah ore should be transshipped through Juneau, but reason is not a factor here.

Bobby Kennedy Jr. and the well-funded Brainerd and Bullitt Foundations have long held sway over this project, stifling what they can and exacerbating the costs of what they cannot kill. The Transboundary Watershed Alliance has launched yet another lawsuit in the Federal Court of Canada seeking to bar Canadian authorities from approving construction of the road to Atlin pending yet another study. The project is on hold for the moment, but, given the high prices of commodities globally, Redfern is ultimately expected to forge ahead.

Ultimately, we as a society cannot and will not do without the gold and silver and lead and zinc that this mine could produce, so the opposition, especially at a mine as remote as the Tulsequah Chief, is inherently futile. But it will cost. It will cost everyone who buys a galvanized nail, a copper pipe or an automobile battery. Every X-ray and every wedding ring will help pay the salary of another Sierra Club attorney. It's good for business, I guess; but given the endemic nature of this mindset I must fear for the Republic.


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