A project to build a 211-mile industrial road to provide access to mineral discoveries in the western Brooks is nearing its final regulatory approvals, and opponents to the project are kicking up a ruckus.
The road would be built west from the existing state-owned Dalton Highway in the central Brooks Range to the Ambler Mining District in the west, near the headwaters of the Kobuk River.
As now conceived it would be single-lane with pullouts to accommodate oncoming traffic.
Trilogy Metals, a Vancouver, B.C.-based exploration company is working on developing its Arctic discovery, a high-grade copper deposit, and is also exploring a larger, lower-grade copper deposit at Bornite, 14 miles to the west.
Besides Arctic and Bornite there are 11 mineral accumulations identified by companies exploring in the region with the potential for developing 250 million tons of potential mineral resources, according to Rick Van Nieuwenhuyse, senior consultant to Trilogy and the company’s former CEO. The road would open access to the region, which is now isolated from surface access.
The road would also have economic benefits for people who live in the region, mainly residents of small villages. It would allow fuel and other supplies to be brought in at lower costs. But there are concerns, too. Subsistence hunting and fishing is crucial to local villagers and there are fears that the road would open access to sports hunters and fishermen who would deplete local wildlife.
Although the road would be for industrial use only and not open to public use, except for local residents to bring in supplies, there is still worry that political pressure from sports groups on the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, the state’s development finance corporation that could build and own the road, would result in it eventually being opened to public use.
Precisely this happened years ago when the Dalton Highway was built to the North Slope. The North Slope Borough, the regional municipality for northern Alaska, has secured assurances from the state that there would be no public access to the road north of the Yukon River. Fairbanks sport-hunting groups sued the state over this and won, resulting in the Dalton becoming a public highway.
However, there are examples of private industrial roads being successfully managed. One is a 50-mile road to the Pogo gold mine from the Alaska Highway near Delta. Northern Star Resources, an Australian mining company, owns the road and operates a security checkpoint to assure limited access that includes people who own recreational cabins in the area.
Van Nieuwenhuyse, of Trilogy, acknowledges the local concerns and said one solution is to form a “Subsistence Committee” similar to one put together by NANA Regional Corp. for the industrial road, also owned by AIDEA, serving the Red Dog Mine. The committee could have representatives from the local villages and would meet with AIDEA to discuss issues related to management of the road.
Trilogy’s focus, meanwhile, is on its Arctic project in the Ambler Mining District where 43 million tons of high-grade ore has been identified with an average grade of 5 percent “copper equivalent.” This means that the combined grade of several metals in the ore, mostly copper, are adjusted do they are expressed in terms of copper. It’s a shortcut way mining companies use to assess the value of multi-metal deposits. Arctic and Bornite are mostly copper.
Bornite has the potential for more mineable ore in its deposit but the grade is lower than at Arctic, at least for what is now known. There is also cobalt, a valuable mineral, at Bornite.
Meanwhile, AIDEA, the state’s development finance agency, is leading the road project, called the Ambler Road project. Federal agencies including the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service are completing their reviews of the environmental impacts of the road.
BLM is the lead federal agency on an Environmental Impact Statement. A draft of the EIS was issued August 23 and public comments are to close Oct. 29. After the comments are considered a final EIS will be issued which will be following by a federal Record of Decision, or ROD, an action that is expected in mid-2020.
If a mine is developed Trilogy’s plan is to build a surface mine and ship copper concentrates in sealed containers by truck, first to the Dalton Highway and then south to Fairbanks. The containers would be transferred in Fairbanks to the Alaska Railroad and shipped south by rail to Anchorage, where the concentrates would be loaded on bulk ore ships for transport to markets.
The mine would employ about 450 in mining operations with additional jobs created in the trucking, rail transport and ship loading. The current plan estimates that about 40 trucks a day carrying the concentrate containers to the Dalton Highway and Fairbanks, said Van Nieuwenhuyse.
About 300 sealed bulk containers a week would be shipped. The loading of ore on vessels in Anchorage will require a full day of work at the Port of Alaska, Van Nieuwenhuyse said. The port is typically occupied only two days a week now when container ships that bring freight from the Pacific Northwest land and are unloaded, so the outbound ore shipments will bring new business to the port, improving its economics.
“This project will bring a lot of revenues,” to the port, the railroad and Alaskan trucking companies, Van Nieuwenhuyse said.
There are actually three routes for the road being weighed in the EIS with the shortest 211-mile option as BLM’s preferred “Alternative A.” It does cross a section of national park land, however, which requires a separate environmental review by the National Park Service.
Two other possibilities include “Alternative B,” at 228 miles, which is routed to shorten the crossing of park service lands. The third, “Alternative C” is the longest, at 322 miles, and avoids the park lands altogether.
It would be the costliest to build, however, and has the disadvantage of not being able to provide access to other mineral discoveries in the region, Van Nieuwenhuyse
said. If the shorter, 211-mile Alternative A is selected the other mineral finds could be reached, which would minimize the need for additional roads, he said.
There are still hurdles for Trilogy, however. The company is now working on permits for the mine itself. There is only one major federal permit required for the mine, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Section 404 permit, but a separate EIS will be done and a number of important state permits must be obtained including a major dam safety permit, or the state authorization and safety verification for the containment structures that will hold mine tailings.
More fundamental is that the company may have to prove up more resources to demonstrate the longer-term economic viability of the mine. Trilogy has a potential partner, however, in a large mining company, Australia-based South32, that has an option to become a part-owner and investor in 2020.
Whether the option is exercised will depend on South32’s confidence that development of a mine proceeds. That, in large part, may depend on whether the BLM and National Park Service approve AIDEA’s proposal for what is essentially a right-of-way across federal lands.
Meanwhile, the public comment period on the DEIS for an industrial access road that could be built from the Dalton Highway closes Oct. 29. A final environmental impact statement could come by the end of the year. Typically, the federal Record of Decision is made 30 days later. Litigation should be expected, however.