BLM issues first review of Ambler Road project
Bureau of Land Management officials have released the draft review of a proposal by the State of Alaska to build a road that would open a large swath of Interior Alaska to mineral development.
The state-owned Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority is leading the permitting and possibly eventually the financing of the long-sought Ambler Mining District Industrial Access Project, which has drawn opposition from environmental groups and some local stakeholders.
Commonly referred to as the Ambler road, the 211-mile gravel road would link the remote Ambler mining district in the Upper Kobuk River drainage to the Dalton Highway near the base of the Brooks Range and the rest of Alaska’s road system.
BLM identified AIDEA’s plan for the Ambler road as it’s preferred alternative for the project in the draft environmental impact statement, or EIS, released Aug. 23, but the exact route through or around Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve is still undecided.
AIDEA applied with BLM to start the Ambler road EIS in March 2017.
The one other Ambler road route considered in the draft EIS would start just north of the Yukon River bridge, near milepost 60 of the Dalton. The road would generally angle northwest for 332 miles before terminating near the Ambler River.
Fairbanks would be 456 miles from the end of the road using AIDEA’s route and 476 miles from the end of the Ambler road under the alternative route.
BLM dismissed the longer route because it would be nearly 60 percent longer than AIDEA’s plan and would have correspondingly more impacts to the environment and be “considerably more costly to construct,” the EIS states.
Using a toll road concept, AIDEA would finance the basic gravel road — with an estimated construction cost between $280 million and $380 million — via revenue bonds that would be repaid by the mining companies that would use it to develop the multiple metal prospects in the 75-mile long mining district near the end of the road.
According to AIDEA, construction and maintenance costs for the road would total between $475 million and $616 million over 30 years. The authority would return between $988 million and $1.1 billion over that time in tolls, according to its analysis, if the mines are developed.
Critics have pointed to the cost of the project, and the fact that there is no guaranteed repayment method, as reasons to scrap the plan.
The Wilderness Society contends the current estimate for the road does not consider some of the costs inherent to building in remote northern Alaska, such as constructing a road over permafrost. The group suggests the road could end up costing $1 billion or more as a result.
The proposed mines have also drawn scrutiny for potential impacts to salmon and whitefish runs in the Kobuk River drainage and many residents of the area villages are concerned about impacts to caribou in the region that are an important subsistence food source.
Numerous village and Tribal governments in the area of the proposed road have issued formal statements of opposition to the project.
AIDEA officials insist access to the road will be restricted to mining activity because it would ultimately be paid for through tolls under the plan; there would be no public access to currently isolated hunting areas, which has been another concern of area residents worried about increased activity.
The state has spent approximately $26 million of public General Fund money on predevelopment studies for the Ambler road over the years.
Rick Van Nieuwenhuyse, CEO of Vancouver-based Trilogy Metals, called the road “crucial to unlocking the incredible mineral wealth” in the Ambler mining district in an Aug. 23 statement.
“The development of the Ambler district will lead to generation of thousands of high-paying jobs for the residents of Alaska,” Van Nieuwenhuyse said. “I want to commend the BLM and all cooperating agencies for getting the draft EIS done and look forward to completing the permit for the road.”
Trilogy Metals is exploring two multi-metal deposits in the district and Van Nieuwenhuyse has repeatedly stressed that without road access the prospects cannot be economically developed. Trilogy is preparing to start the federal permitting process for the Arctic copper, zinc and precious metal deposit shortly after permitting the road is complete, he has said.
Arctic would be an open-pit mine and its expected many of the other prospects in the area would be as well if they are developed.
Public comment meetings on the draft Ambler road EIS are scheduled for more than 20 communities during a 45-day comment period.
“I realize the importance of this project to the State of Alaska and for the state’s ability to develop its resources and as such, I am committed to ensuring a thorough and comprehensive analysis,” BLM Alaska Director Chad Padgett said in a statement. “This can’t be done without substantive input from stakeholders.”
The public comment period is scheduled to start Aug. 30 and run through Oct. 15.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].