Federal review of Arctic Alaska controversial mining road begins

Allakaket resident Irene Henry, right, testifies against the proposed Ambler road in Fairbanks on Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014, as her grandchildren stand by. (Dermot Cole/Alaska Dispatch News)
State money may be in doubt for the Ambler Mining District Industrial Access Project, one of Alaska’s “Roads to Resources,” but federal agencies are moving ahead with plans for the controversial proposal to punch a 211-mile industry-only road through wild areas of Arctic Alaska.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management on Tuesday formally kicked off the environmental review process for the Ambler road, announcing in a Federal Register notice that the scoping process has begun.

Through scoping, BLM is seeking public input about issues that should be addressed in an environmental impact statement. That public comment period ends May 30, and a completed environmental impact statement is expected by the end of 2019, said the BLM notice.

BLM is the lead among several agencies working on the environmental review of the road, which would run through the Brooks Range foothills. The National Park Service will do a separate analysis of the section of road, estimated to be 26 miles, that would cross through Gates of the Arctic National Preserve.

“Industrial use only”

The road is envisioned as an access route for the isolated Ambler Mining District in northwestern Alaska. The district has been long known to be rich in copper, lead and zinc and has been explored for decades by mining companies. Its remoteness has stymied commercial development.

“The road is currently considered for industrial use only and not open for public access,” the BLM said in its announcement.

Construction of the road, as planned, would be financed by the state through the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority. That agency is the sponsor of the road project. Mining companies using the road would, in time, repay the state’s construction costs, according to the proposal.

The company most active in Ambler exploration and road promotion in recent years is Vancouver-based Trilogy Metals, formerly known as NovaCopper.

The Ambler road was part of former Gov. Sean Parnell’s Roads to Resources program, which envisioned several state-funded roads to enable extraction of oil, gas and minerals in remote areas. So far, the state has spent $26.3 million on Ambler road planning work. There was no funding for it in the state’s fiscal 2016 or 2017 budgets, and Gov. Bill Walker has not included it in his proposed fiscal 2018 budget either.

The controversy
Remoteness of the district has stymied commercial development. (Pam Dunlap-Shohl/Alaska Dispatch News)

AIDEA, Trilogy and other road supporters tout the project as a gateway to economic benefits — construction and mining jobs and opening up an undeveloped area to tax-producing resource extraction.

Critics consider it a money-wasting boondoggle that, if built, will damage the region’s environment and harm residents who depend on wild resources.

The head of an organization that was formed specifically to oppose the road on Tuesday lamented the continued work on it.

“We have independent reports documenting the fiscal irresponsibility of this project, as well as resolutions against the road from local villages,” John Gaedeke, chairman of the Brooks Range Council, said in a statement. “The state of Alaska is staggering through a financial crisis, proposing cuts and taxes, yet it keeps wasting money on this road to nowhere. This has to stop.”

Walker has not taken a stand for or against the Ambler road. “This project is currently under review,” Katie Marquette, Walker’s press secretary, said by email.

Shortly after entering office in December 2014, Walker froze state spending on the Ambler road and some other big projects. The following October, he authorized AIDEA to spend $3.6 million of previously appropriated money to continue Ambler road planning work. AIDEA would need another $4.2 million to $6.8 million to complete its part of the environmental impact statement process, according to a 2015 memo written by Pat Pitney, Walker’s budget director.

The governor rejected a different controversial road project. In December, he announced that the state will abandon work on a long-proposed road north out of Juneau, a capital city that lacks direct road access — though the $575 million road would still have been nearly 20 miles short of the highway out of Skagway and require a ferry to get there. Walker said the state, with its diminished oil revenues, could no longer afford to pursue the Juneau access road.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada:  Gold miner Agnico Eagle to invest $1.2B in two Canadian Arctic mines, Radio Canada International

Finland: No more state money for Terrafame mine, says Finland’s minister of economic affairs, Yle News

Greenland: Greenland pioneers Arctic tourism & mining, Cryopolitics Blog

Norway: Production uncertain beyond Q2 at iron-ore mine in Arctic Norway, Barents Observer

Russia: Mining accident death toll rises to 36, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Relocation of Arctic town underway in Sweden, Radio Sweden

United States:  Could good mining jobs actually hurt Bush villages?, Alaska Dispatch News

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