A project to build a 311-mile industrial road to provide access to mineral discoveries in the western Brooks is nearing its final regulatory approvals. The road would be built west from the existing state-owned Dalton Highway in the central Brooks Range to the Ambler Mining District 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 copper deposit at Bornite, a few miles to the west, said Rick Van Nieuwenhuyse, senior consultant to Trilogy and the company’s former CEO.
Van Nieuwenhuyse briefed members of the Resource Development Council, an Anchorage-based development-advocacy group, on the project last Thursday.
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, Van Nieuwenhuyse said. The road would open access to the region, which is now isolated from surface access.
Trilogy’s focus is on Arctic, where 43 million tons of high grade ore has been identified, with an average grade of 5 percent “copper equivalent,” which means that the combined grade of several metals in the ore, mostly copper, are adjusted do they are expressed in terms of copper. This is 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.
Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, the state of Alaska’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 contains 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.
Despite its positive economic impacts the people who live in the region, mainly residents of small villages, have concerns about adverse effects. The road would allow fuel and supplies to be brought in at lower costs but subsistence hunting and fishing is crucial to local villagers and there are fears that sports hunters and fishermen, with better access, would deplete local wildlife.
But because the road is owned by AIDEA it would be managed as a private road, with controlled access, the state authority has said.
Speaking at RDC, Van Nieuwenhuyse acknowledged 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.
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 most costly 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 a lot of 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.