A senior official with the Alaska Economic Development and Export Authority says the proposed road to the Ambler Mining District in Northwest Alaska will be built only if the state gets firm financial commitments from companies that’ve expressed interest in the area. The AIDEA official told a group Wednesday at the Alaska Mining Association biennial conference that the state also would use that public-private partnership to improve the road, if more mining companies find additional deposits to develop in the area.
Jeffrey San Juan told a roomful of miners that if federal agencies give their go-ahead to the 211-mile road to the Ambler Mining District, the Alaska Economic Development and Export Authority, or AIDEA, will built it one phase at a time. And he says AIDEA will require mining companies interested in developing the district’s resources to help pay for each phase.
“We’re planning on financing it initially,” he said, “so that we can get any mines that signed up to pay the financing for the road, so that they can start to get their mines up and running, and provide for that financing to build the road itself.”
San Juan is AIDEA’s senior infrastructure development finance officer. And he says the first phase of the Ambler Mining District Industrial Access Project calls for construction of a one-lane, seasonally-accessible road from the Dalton Highway to the district just east of the village of Ambler. AIDEA estimates that phase would cost $280 million and would be paid for through a public-private partnership, in which AIDEA would pay cash and possibly proceeds from bond issues, and mining companies that want to use the road would pay user fees, or tolls.
“AIDEA’s not planning on constructing any road without any commitments from mines to pay back the tolls,” he said. “… I assure you that AIDEA is not going to put the state in a position where we’re going to build something that doesn’t have any contracts in place.”
San Juan says if more companies find additional deposits in the mining district and they commit to paying for use of the road to develop those resources, AIDEA would improve it. He says phase 2 would make the road useable year-round, at a cost of about $320 million. Phase 3 would call for further improvements to widen the road to two lanes, for another $380 million.
“Best-case scenario is we get to phase 3, where we have several mines operating, and we have multiple trucks running year-round,” he said.
San Juan says four major deposits of mainly gold and copper have so far been identified along a 75-mile mineralized zone within the mining district. And he says several other sites also show promise. He says the road would be used only for mining-related traffic, and otherwise would be closed to the public. He said in an interview after his talk that AIDEA officials recently decided to bury a fiber-optic cable along the route. It would be used for surveillance cameras that would monitor traffic, in response to concerns voiced in public hearings about the road being opened to others, including hunters.
“We basically decided, because of the public comments, to go ahead and include it,” he said. “And it would provide a community benefit to potentially the schools, the clinics, and also some of the mines that hopefully get developed out there.”
San Juan says the road project is now being reviewed by four federal agencies for rights-of-way and wetland and bridge permits, and because the route passes through the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. He says AIDEA expects the feds to issue any day now a draft document on the scoping process, which includes public hearing testimony and input from industry, scientists and other stakeholders. He says Interior Department officials recently said they’re considering fast-tracking release of the final version of the document as early as this summer, as part of the agency’s new policy of completing the Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, process.
“We heard from them that there’s a possibility of an accelerated schedule, because of what’s happening down in (Washington) D.C., and the Department of the Interior, as far as moving EISes at a lot faster pace.”
Federal officials say a final decision on the project is expected in early 2020.
Correction: This story was revised to correct the name of a document that Interior Department officials will release in draft form this month and in final form possibly as early as this summer: it's the report on the scoping process conducted for the proposed road project, not the draft and final Environmental Impact Statement.