Feds approve critical Alaska mining road
Authorize 211-mile road to world-class Ambler Mining District North of 60 Mining News – July 24, 2020
Last updated 9/26/2020 at 3:05pm
The U.S. Department of Interior issued two decisions that mark a major milestone along the path of permitting a road to the incredibly rich and strategically important Ambler Mining District in Northwest Alaska.
On July 23, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the National Park Service (NPS) with the U.S. Federal Highway Administration, issued a record of decision that authorizes a right-of-way for the proposed 211-mile-long road connecting the Ambler Mining District to the Dalton Highway.
"President Trump has long recognized why investments in infrastructure are vital to meet the urgent need for critical minerals," said Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Casey Hammond. "The Trump Administration's success today is a game changer for our nation's ability to secure American prosperity and national security."
The road approved by the federal agencies runs nearly due west from the Dalton Highway along the south side of the Brooks Range through a 26-mile stretch of the Gates of the Arctic National Park and onward to the Ambler District, the most direct and shortest route between the mining district and Alaska's highway system.
This was the preferred route of the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA), which is expected to build and maintain the Ambler Road.
While typically it would be nearly impossible to get permission to build an industrial road across a national park, U.S. lawmakers included a provision in the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) that mandates passage across Gates of the Arctic.
Section 201 (4) of ANILCA reads, "Congress finds that there is a need for access for surface transportation purposes across the Western (Kobuk River) unit of the Gates of the Arctic National Preserve (from the Ambler Mining District to the Alaska Pipeline Haul Road) and the Secretary shall permit such access in accordance with the provisions of this subsection."
ANILCA directs that an environmental and economic analysis be prepared for the right-of-way across National Park Service lands to determine a preferred road alignment; and develop appropriate terms and conditions for the right-of-way permit.
"This action fulfills the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act promise made 40 years ago that creation of Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve would not block access to this minerals resource," said Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks Robert Wallace. "Congress mandated access across the Kobuk Preserve and this action delivers on that direction in a way that mitigates impacts on important preserve resources."
Critical mineral projects
The reason Washington lawmakers ensured that a road could be built across Gates of the Arctic is because the Ambler district's incredible mineral potential was already well known.
And the exploration carried out over the past decade has only expanded upon that potential.
According to the most recent calculations, the Arctic and Bornite deposits in the Ambler district hosts 9 billion pounds of copper, 3.6 billion lb of zinc, 628 million lb of lead, 77 million lb of cobalt, 58 million ounces of silver and 770,000 oz of gold.
A 2018 prefeasibility study for Arctic detailed plans for a mine that is expected to produce more than 159 million lb of copper, 199 million lb of zinc, 33 million lb of lead, 30,600 oz of gold and 3.3 million oz of silver annually over a 12-year mine-life.
It is expected that Ambler Metals will apply for the permits needed to develop a mine at Arctic shortly after the completion of a feasibility study, slated for later this year.
Bornite, a very large copper-cobalt deposit about 16 miles southwest of Arctic, is expected to be the second mine developed in the Ambler district.
"Federal approval of the Ambler Road is both timely and significant for Alaska's future," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. "This project will provide the access needed to responsibly develop a number of high-grade mineral deposits, hopefully leading to greater production of copper, cobalt, zinc, silver, gold, and other metals. That will, in turn, mean good jobs for Alaskans and revenues for our state."
The copper, zinc, silver, and cobalt are increasingly demanded by the renewable energy and electric vehicle sectors in the U.S.
Cobalt, an important ingredient of lithium-ion batteries and the superalloys used to make aircraft turbine engines, is on the list of minerals critical to the United States.
Carbonate-hosted such as Bornite also often host germanium and gallium, two other critical minerals used in a number of modern applications including solar cells, infrared optics, LEDs, semiconductors and smartphones.
"Minerals are critical to countless items we use every day," said Congressman Don Young, R-Alaska. "From computers and batteries, to building materials and other consumer products, we must ensure that Alaska is leading the way in responsible mining."
The ability to build a road is the key to unlocking the world-class potential of these Northwest Alaska deposits.
"We welcome the record of decision, a key milestone to further progress the Ambler Metals project," said South32 CEO Graham Kerr. "We look forward to continuing our partnership with Trilogy to unlock the value of the project's high-quality base and precious metals resources, working together to advance it through the current study phase."
Source of jobs, revenue
The road and the mines expected to be developed at its western terminus are expected to create economic opportunities in Northwest Alaska that radiate across the state.
AIDEA estimates that building the road would create 766 direct, indirect, and induced jobs; and up to another 141 full-time workers will be needed for maintenance, traffic control and other positions over the life of the road.
"Nearly 40 years after Congress guaranteed access to the Ambler Mining District, today's decision allows AIDEA to move forward with the planning of a project that could create thousands of Alaskan jobs and a new source of revenue for the benefit all Alaskans," said Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy.
Other positive impacts expected to flow from the road's construction include:
• The development of a major mining district partially owned by NANA, an Alaska Native Corporation, that will create more 65,000 jobs, generating more than $5 billion in wages, and over $1.3 billion in local and state revenues over the life of the mines.
• Additional access that could be used for emergency response and fiber optic infrastructure improving telecommunications in communities in the region.
• Lower costs for fuel and other community goods and services as needed supplies could be trucked into roadside staging areas rather than flown in or delivered by barge.
"The prospect of hundreds of good-paying jobs, from the Ambler road and resulting projects, in Northwest Alaska is good news for the incredible, hardworking Alaskans who live in this region," said Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska. "As I've consistently said, the proposed infrastructure and projects have to be done right, with due consideration for preserving the environment and with input from the communities in the area."
AIDEA said its efforts to permit a road that will unlock this economic potential was aided by hardworking and forward-thinking Alaskans from the Ambler Mining District to Washington D.C.
"Getting a large, remote project such as Ambler through the Environmental Impact Statement process is a herculean task," said AIDEA Chief Infrastructure Development Officer Mark Davis. "It couldn't have been done without the wisdom of Alaska's 1980s Congressional delegation, support of past and present delegations, legislators and administrations, and thoughtful dialogue with Alaskans who assist us in critically analyzing every decision."