Ambler Road proponents dismiss conflict of interest claims

Concerns over a proposed mine access road in Northwest Alaska are unfounded, the state and a mining company proponent of the project claim.

According to Nancy Wainwright, an attorney with law firm Trustees for Alaska representing the village of Ambler, Dowl HKM has performed work on the Ambler Road project for the state and was contracted previously by Vancouver-based NovaCopper.

Dowl HKM is a national transportation infrastructure engineering and environmental consulting firm.

“(Dowl HKM) appears to be a very important factor in this road promotion,” Wainwright said.

Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority spokesman Karsten Rodvik said questions raised at authority board meetings earlier this year about a possible conflict of interest stemming from a third-party consulting firm hired by AIDEA and NovaCopper, which has pushed for a road to the Ambler Mining District, are an unneeded worry.

“Dowl HKM has not performed work on any contract for NovaGold or NovaCopper since AIEDA took over management of the Ambler project,” Rodvik said.

He added that he sees no basis for claims that a conflict of interest exists.

The road would provide access to four rich copper, zinc, lead and silver deposits that stretch for about 75 miles between the Brooks Range and the upper Kobuk River. It would run west for approximately 200 miles from near milepost 135 of the Dalton Highway and give any Ambler-area mines that are developed rail access in Fairbanks.

AIDEA took over the Ambler Road project last year, primarily so the state financing authority could investigate a public-private partnership financing model for the industrial road.

As a privately funded one-lane corridor, it would likely be closed to public access while mining activity is occurring.

The state Department of Transportation worked on the project beginning in 2010, prior to transferring it to AIDEA.

On its current timeline, construction on the road would begin in 2019, according to AIDEA.

In a March report to the Legislature, AIDEA Deputy Director Mark Davis said Dowl HKM was involved with the project with DOT and the authority, a fact Wainwright said is significant. She said Ambler residents are worried about the relationship between AIDEA, the consultant and NovaCopper at public meetings. The parties present at public meetings in remote villages and fly out in the same planes, she said.

“There’s an appearance of a conflict that has never been resolved,” Wainwright said.

NovaCopper CEO Rick Van Nieuwenhuyse wrote in an email that the “conflict of interest is completely without merit.” He could not be reached for further comment in time for this story.

NovaCopper has touted the road a link to jobs at one or more mines that could be developed in the district. AIDEA has said it could also provide lower cost fuel to isolated communities in Northwest Alaska through ice road links from the industrial Ambler Road.

Rodvik said AIDEA is currently seeking a contractor to conduct the environmental impact statement, or EIS, a step in the project required by the National Environmental Policy Act that it hopes to begin late this year.

Whatever group the authority selects to conduct the EIS must keep previous consultants on the project at arms length, Wainwright noted, to comply with NEPA regulations that state no entity that has any history on a project can be involved in the EIS process.

Additionally, she said villagers are worried that their concerns about the potential impact to caribou migrations and subsequent subsistence activity are not being taken seriously at public meetings.

Reports from some meetings are that public comments are not being recorded, Wainwright said, and at others only those comments supporting the project are being documented. As a result, villagers in the road corridor have taken to holding their own meetings, she said.

Wainwright emphasized that the AIDEA board has pushed for public input on the Ambler Road at its meetings and has heard public concerns, but that the board’s directive to does not seem to be reaching staff, she said.

“When citizens have to take over the public process that agencies are supposed to handle the public process has gone awry,” she said.

Rodvik said AIDEA has held 31 public meetings from the Interior to Kotzebue since it took over the project and has received “significant” support for its work. He noted that none of the meetings to date have been required by any process and that another round of public involvement will begin with the EIS.

Before AIDEA moves forward with the project the authority’s board must approve any agreement, Rodvik noted.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

11/21/2016 - 5:12pm