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‘When these big rigs roll ... you are taking your life in your hands’

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Kinross Fort Knox Project Director Sunil Kumar's narrates during his slideshow presentation on the company's plan to haul ore from its Manh Choh mine near Tetlin to its mill north of Fairbanks.

Residents of rural highway communities decry Kinross plan to haul ore from mine to mill, 240 miles away

Kinross scheduled five online meetings to talk with residents about the mine it’s developing in Tetlin. But most of those listening-in on Thursday’s virtual meetings wanted to talk about the company’s plan to haul ore by truck – big, 95-foot-long double-dumpers, weighing 80 tons fully loaded. Area resident John Cook said those rigs would make winter driving even more difficult.

“Anybody that ever had to pass or have an oncoming double come at you during a snowstorm can tell you it’s one of the most harrowing experiences that you’ll ever encounter,” Cook said.

Jake Loud lives along the Richardson Highway near Harding Lake, and he says the state Department of Transportation is already challenged to keep the highways plowed after a snowstorm, like the one that hit late last month.

“It took three days before DOT even came out to our area,” he said. “We were driving on ice for three days. And it was, like, very slow, and you didn’t dare passing.”

Jeanne Kohler lives on Harding Lake, and she says it’s already hard for motorists to pull out of a side road like the one she’s living on and out on to the Richardson Highway.

“There are times when these big rigs roll down that road and you are taking your life in your hands to try to pull out on it,” she said.

More than a dozen residents of Salcha and Delta Junction voiced concerns during the two virtual meetings over traffic safety and the highway maintenance that’ll be needed when Kinross begins running as many as 192 trucks every day on that 240-mile route. Kohler and others worried how that’s going to affect morning and evening commuters and school bus runs.

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Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities
The state Department of Transportation is planning to develop up to four passing lanes along the Alaska Highway and eight on the Richardson Highway over the next couple of years to help alleviate traffic congestion created by the ore-hauling trucks that Kinross plans to operate along the two roadways after the Manh Choh mine near Tetlin begins operating in 2024.

“Our kids are on school buses on a two-lane road, with these trucks honking at 55 or more miles an hour,” she said.

Kinross Project Director Sunil Kumar said the company plans to form community advisory groups to communicate those kinds of concerns. And he says the contractor that Kinross will hire will maintain a 15-minute interval between the ore trucks and ensure the drivers obey the speed limit and get enough rest.

“We will implement a comprehensive safety-management system, which would include speed monitoring and driver-fatigue monitoring,” he said.

Transportation Department Northern Region Acting Director Sarah Schacher says the agency plans to build up to four passing lanes on the Alaska Highway and eight on the Richardson Highway to help relieve traffic congestion created by the ore trucks. And she says the agency is working to ensure the projects are funded so they can be built before the trucks roll.

“Those are planned to be in construction in 2023,” she said, “so hopefully all completed before the ore haul begins in 2024.”

Harding Lake Association President Jeff Cook asked Schacher if there’s any way the state can seek compensation from Kinross to help pay for additional maintenance that’ll be needed to fix the problems caused by the additional heavy trucks pounding the pavement.

“What’s being proposed here are legal highway loads,” she said. “So, from Alaska DOT’s standpoint, the best we can do is try to look at what’s being proposed and see what impact it’s going to have.”

Kinross spokesperson Anna Atchison suggested the company could help the state pay for the increased maintenance if legislators boosted the state’s 9-cent-per-gallon motor vehicle fuel tax, one of the lowest fuel taxes in the nation.

“And in this case,” she said, “it would be many, many, many millions of dollars that would go into that revenue-funding source.”

Delta Junction-area resident James Squyres said the ore-trucking plan may require DOT to consider an even more expensive project: that is, repairing or replacing two 76-year-old bridges that span the Gerstle and Johnson rivers, south of Delta.

“We’re talking about turn lanes, and we’re talking about slowing people down and all kinds of discussion, but it seems like the weakest link in the chain is an old bridge,” he said.

Schacher said DOT may have to repair the wooden deck of the Johnson River bridge. But she said the state can’t afford to replace the bridges, unless federal funding became available through Congress passing an infrastructure bill, like the one proposed by President Biden.

Editor's note: This story was revised to correct Jeanne Kohler's name.