With BLM approval at hand, Alaska agency uses emergency meeting to fund controversial mine road

“The board action ensures that we won’t miss a minute of that 2020 field season.”

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Caribou from the Western Arctic Caribou herd migrate south through the DeLong Mountains in the Western Brooks Range in Alaska’s Arctic in a 2012 file photo. A proposed road connecting a mining district to the rest of Alaska’s highway system would cut through foothills south of the Brooks Range — and through the Western Arctic Caribou Herd’s habitat. (National Park Service)

An Alaska state agency used an emergency meeting to shift $35 million into a fund that will be used to start summer field work on a controversial road cutting more than 200 miles into the Brooks Range foothills to gain access to an isolated mining district in Arctic Alaska.

The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority used the March 26-27 emergency meeting, which was held by teleconference, to make a money transfer enabling on-site work to begin on the Ambler Mining District Industrial Access Project.

The need for a quick start to work on the Ambler road justified emergency action, given the coronavirus pandemic-related economic crisis, said Tom Boutin, AIDEA’s chief executive officer and executive director.

[Alaska faces triple hit from coronavirus due to reliance on oil, fishing, tourism]

“The board action ensures that we won’t miss a minute of that 2020 field season,” Boutin said the day after the meeting concluded.

Previous work had been delayed when former Gov. Bill Walker was in office and put the Ambler road on hold. Walker had considered the Ambler road to be one of several large projects that might be too expensive for the state to pursue.

AIDEA’s decision to push forward quickly on the Ambler road project is in accordance with current Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s policies, Boutin said. “He ran on a platform of resource development and building the economy back up. As soon as he got into office, he cranked Ambler back up,” Boutin said. “We’re back on track and it’s important that we don’t lose another field season.”

The AIDEA board action on the Ambler project, accompanied by some other emergency motions, came at the same time the federal government endorsed the road plan with a key regulatory document.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, in a final environmental impact statement released on March 26 and announced in the Federal Register the following day, selected as its preferred alternative a plan for a 211-mile road from Alaska’s existing road system to the Ambler mining district.

The BLM’s Alaska state director said the document was well researched and will contribute to lucrative economic development in Arctic Alaska.

“The Final EIS is the culmination of almost three years of community meetings, tribal consultations, public input and federal and state agency cooperation,” Chad Padgett, BLM’s Alaska state director, said in a statement. “My staff traveled to more than 20 communities in the project area to solicit input and gather traditional knowledge. Those efforts contributed to this comprehensive analysis that will help pave the way for Alaska to responsibly develop its natural resources and create jobs.”

A record of decision on whether the BLM will issue a right-of-way for the project is expected to at least 30 days after the notice was published in the Federal Register.

The vision for the Ambler Mining District Industrial Access project is for the state to build and maintain the road using debt financing. The route would be limited to the industrial purpose of developing and operating mines in the heavily mineralized district. The prime metal that would be mined is copper, but there are other valuable metals in the district. AIDEA is the project sponsor and would be the bonding agency; AIDEA’s plan is for the benefitting mining companies to pay back the road construction costs over time.

The prime beneficiary of the road, should it be built, would be Vancouver-based Trilogy Metals Inc. The company has been exploring the Ambler district for several years and has tentative plans to develop at least three major deposits.

Trilogy welcomed the release of the final environmental impact statement.

“The completion of the Final EIS marks a critical milestone for the permitting process of the Ambler road which will unlock the incredible mineral potential of the Ambler Mining District. Trilogy, through its joint venture company, Ambler Metals LLC, is already discussing the next steps for the financing and development of the road with the Alaska Industrial Development Export Authority,” James Gowens, interim president and chief executive of Trilogy Metals, said in a statement.

But the project is adamantly opposed by a broad coalition of Alaskans. Fighting the project are tribal leaders and Native villagers who live along the corridor and environmentalists, who argue that the project would cause irreparable damage to the Western Arctic Caribou Herd and other culturally important resources. Also opposing the project are budget hawks who say the state cannot afford it and that it amounts to a corporate giveaway.

Dozens of project opponents testified by teleconference at the AIDEA emergency board meeting and sharply criticized the members’ actions. Some argued that the AIDEA board was fraudulently using the COVID-19 pandemic as cover to push a highly unpopular and expensive project that is bitterly opposed by villages in the affected region.

“It’s actually somewhat unbelievable and outrageous that you’re even holding this meeting today in such an obtuse manner,” said Rick Steiner, a marine biologist and environmental consultant based in Anchorage. “In times like these we see the both best and the worst of humanity and this AIDEA process is likely illegal, is some of the worst, and with respect, I think AIDEA should be ashamed of itself for trying to jam these proposal through without adequate public scrutiny.”

“It’s super embarrassing what you guys are doing right now,” Seth Kantner, an author from Kotzebue, said in the testimony.

Other members of the public who testified made similar comments, using harsh terms that included “beyond the pale,” “a new low” and “utterly deplorable.”

There are questions about the legality of the board’s actions, Alaska State Rep. Andy Josephson said in the public-testimony period.

That the state legislature has not funded this project in years “speaks volumes” about legislative doubts about its merits, Josephson said. And the dearth of public notice about the hastily called meeting, along with what appeared to be an arbitrary limit to public input, likely violates state laws on open meetings and public process, he said.

“I would ask you to reconsider what you’re doing and make sure that you’re not going to involve the state in extended litigation challenging both the process and the substance of what you’re doing,” he told the board.

Boutin said the field work enabled by the $35 million would be pre-construction tasks such as a LiDAR survey of the road route. He said AIDEA plans to work with Trilogy Metal’s financial partner, the Australian mining major South32, to contribute additional money for pre-construction work.