Environment & Energy Report

Mining Road Moves Closer to Opening Biggest Block of Wild Alaska (1)

March 27, 2020, 4:16 PMUpdated: March 27, 2020, 5:25 PM

A proposed private 211-mile mining road that would cross a national park and preserve, opening access to untapped precious metals, came one step closer to approval Friday.

The road’s chief proponent, Trilogy Metals Inc., has hired Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s former lobbying firm to push the project through approval.

The Ambler Road is expected to bring new jobs to a remote region. But it also could spread disease among Native Alaskans, fragment caribou migration corridors, and damage Arctic tundra, according to a Bureau of Land Management analysis.

The road would open a vast wilderness around Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. The state-funded road, which would be the only road in the entire region, would open up industrial access to the 70-mile-long Ambler Mineral Belt, a mountain range targeted for copper, zinc, gold, and molybdenum mining.

The BLM published its final review for the road on Friday. The BLM will make a final decision after the final environmental impact statement has been out for 30 days.

The gravel road would pass through state and federal land west from the Dalton Highway north of Fairbanks to the Ambler mining district in an extremely remote area. The proposed road would be surrounded by the Gates of the Arctic and Kobuk Valley national parks and the Noatak National Preserve.

Together, those lands represent the nation’s largest contiguous areas protected by the National Park Service, and the largest contiguous wilderness areas in the U.S.

Thousands of Jobs

The state expects the road and mining construction to create upwards of 4,000 direct and indirect jobs during the lifetimes of the road and mines.

Trilogy, based in Vancouver, owns the majority of the Ambler Mineral Belt and is proposing at least two mines for the area, which haven’t been developed yet because of lack of infrastructure.

The road and the first mine, expected to produce copper, lead, zinc, gold, and silver, is slated to begin construction in 2022, Trilogy Vice President Patrick Donnelly said Friday.

“It’s not the mine that’s controversial, it’s the road,” Donnelly said. “It has no impacts whatsoever on caribou. If you don things right, there shouldn’t be any problems.”

Joseph Balash, an Alaskan who until last August served as assistant Interior secretary for land and and minerals, was the mining industry’s primary official responsible for expediting approval of the project, Donnelly said in a September interview.

Last year, Trilogy hired Bernhardt’s former lobbying firm, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, LLP, to lobby for Ambler Road, according to federal lobbying disclosure reports for the third and fourth quarters of 2019.

The firm spent about $100,000 late in 2019 lobbying for the road, the documents show.

Bernhardt, a former energy and natural resources lobbyist, has been accused of using his position to help former clients of his at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. The Interior Department’s inspector general in 2019 opened an investigation into Bernhardt, the agency’s watchdog confirmed in letters to congressional Democrats and ethics groups that requested the probe.

Ambler Road has support from Alaska’s senators, who are touting the economic opportunity the project will bring to a largely undeveloped region.

“Projects like this will open the door to responsible resource development that will ultimately enhance our mineral security, boost the state economy, and create economic opportunity for the region,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said in a statement Friday.

Potential Harm to Native Alaskans

But the road and mines themselves are expected to come at a cost.

The BLM’s analysis says the road could severely damage public health among Native Alaskans living in isolated communities along the road’s proposed route. Native Alaskans and workers who travel and hunt along the road would be increasingly exposed to naturally occurring asbestos in the road dust, the analysis said.

The road would also “create easier access to abusable substances and could increase communicable disease if residents and workers mingle,” it said.

In its response to public comments about the road’s health impacts, the BLM said health mostly would be affected by mining development, not the road itself.

Donnelly said claims that the mine or the road could pose a public health problem is “basically implying that miners and truckers are all disease-ridden human beings. I think that’s nonsense, quite honestly.” Those concerns amount to a “scare tactic to get the locals riled up,” he said.

The BLM didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.

Tundra, Caribou At Risk

The road could also disrupt caribou migration—though truck drivers on the road would be required to stop and wait for caribou to pass, the bureau’s analysis said. And the bureau said the road could prompt faster melting of permafrost—already hit by climate change—due to dust deposits.

The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority is the Ambler Road’s primary developer. The authority is set to vote Friday evening on a resolution that would transfer $35 million to a fund that supports the road’s construction.

An AIDEA spokesman couldn’t be immediately reached for comment.

Environmental groups worry the road will degrade untouched wilderness, among a litany of concerns.

“It’s just hard to explain the level of threats this poses,” said Kati Schmidt, communications director for the National Parks Conservation Association in San Francisco. “Are we going to stand for wild nature and wild lands and this tradition of protecting national parks, or are we going to allow an industrial mining road to advance?”

(Updates throughout. )

To contact the reporter on this story: Bobby Magill at bmagill@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Renee Schoof at rschoof@bloombergenvironment.com; Anna Yukhananov at ayukhananov@bloombergenvironment.com

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