Study looks at road and rail for Ambler mine area

The state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities has released a preliminary study of routes and costs for a road into the mineral-rich Ambler Mining District of Northwest Alaska.

NovaGold Resources and several other minerals companies have discovered significant metals deposits in the area.

NANA Regional Corp. of Kotzebue, a major landowner in the area, has teamed up with NovaGold to jointly explore and possibly develop the Arctic and Bornite discoveries, which are owned by NovaGold and NANA, respectively.

The state Transportation Department’s study is part of Gov. Sean Parnell’s Roads to Resources program, which proposes new transportation access projects to areas with potential for minerals and oil and gas.

The Ambler region survey considered seven routes into the Ambler region, which is in the western Brooks Range east of Kotzebue, according to the transportation study. Three routes were from the east, connecting with the Dalton Highway or the Elliot Highway, and four routes were to the west including one that connected with the Red Dog Mine road and an existing port on the Chukchi Sea coast.

Two routes to the Dalton Highway, which are basically variations of one route, appear to have the lowest costs and are less affected by federal land conservation units in the region, the study said.

Of these two, the Brooks East route provides the shortest connection to the Dalton Highway, 220 miles, with the lowest estimated cost at $430 million. It does cross 26 miles of the Gates of the Arctic National Park, said Ryan Anderson, the state’s manager on the project, but this part of the park is not classified as wilderness and it may be possible to secure a corridor under provisions of the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands and Conservation Act, or ANILCA.

If an Environmental Impact Statement shows that this route is shorter and has less overall effect on the environment, federal agencies might be convinced to grant the corridor, Anderson said.

However, there is an alternate route from the Dalton Highway that is 20 miles longer and would cost $80 million more, but circumvents the national park to the south. This route, the Kanuti Flats alternative, is 240 miles long, with an estimated cost of $510 million.

Projected maintenance costs on the two alternatives are $8 million a year for the Brooks East option and $9 million a year for the Kanuti Flats route, according to  the study.

One other route from the east would connect with the Elliot Highway, but it is longer, at 370 miles, and would cost much more, $990 million, mainly because of a need for a bridge across the Yukon River.

By connecting with the Dalton Highway north of the Yukon, the Brooks East and Kanuti Flats alternatives avoid this need, since there is already a Yukon bridge for the Dalton.

All four road alternatives to the west that were studied are generally more expensive than the eastern routes and cross extensive sections of federal conservation land units. The route to the Red Dog Mine road appears the most viable of these because it is 260 miles long and would cost $720 million, but it also would require a 114-mile corridor across a federal conservation land unit.

Other alternatives to the west, to Cape Blossom, Cape Darby and to the Selawik Flats, are 250 miles, 340 miles and 330 miles, respectively, but have estimated costs of $860 million, $950 million and $960 million because of wetlands and stream crossings.

More important, however, is that all of the western routes cross extensive areas of federal land conservation units with sensitive habitat, which raise doubts as to whether a corridor could be obtained.

The transportation department’s study also considered railroad options, including four routes to the east that would connect with the existing Alaska Railroad and four to the west, to various port sites including the existing Red Dog Mine port.

All of these were expensive, however, with costs ranging from $1.8 billion to $2 billion for the four eastern route options for railways, with lengths of 430 miles to 450 miles. Costs were lower, and routes shorter, for the western routes, but all four routes crossed extensive areas within federal land conservation units.

Cost estimates for the western rail routes ranged from $1.25 billion to $1.57 billion. Distances ranges from 260 miles to 340 miles.

The main part of the Ambler access study is finished but the transportation department is continuing work on how a road might affect subsistence use, a concern to small communities in the region, Anderson said.

Generally, local villagers support the concept of road access because it would also lower living costs, which are very high, particularly for fuel.

Updated: 
11/10/2016 - 10:17pm