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DOT plans more Rich Highway passing lanes to accommodate Kinross Gold trucking plan

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KUAC file graphic
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During a virtual meeting in October for residents of Delta Junction, Kinross Gold officials used this slide to describe the company's plan to haul ore by truck from its mine near Tetlin to its Fort Knox mill north of Fairbanks, a nearly 250-mile one-way trip.

Group urges Kinross to consider trucking alternatives

The state Department of Transportation plans to build 16 passing lanes next year on the Richardson Highway between Fairbanks and Delta Junction to improve safety and traffic flow.

A DOT official says the agency proposed the project mainly in response to Kinross Gold's plans to haul nearly 200 truckloads of ore every day from its mine near Tok to its mill north of Fairbanks.

But many of those who live along that 250-mile route say they’re alarmed at such a big increase in truck traffic, and they’re urging Kinross to consider alternatives.

DOT Northern Region engineer Carl Heim says the agency has for years been looking at building passing lanes in eight areas between Delta and Eielson Air Force Base. But he says the proposal was divided-up to make each project more affordable.

“Sort of scaled it down to maybe one or two passing-lane locations, something that’s a little bit more fund-able, and got it around to around 3 to 5 million dollars,” he said. “But, that was last year.”

Since then, Kinross Gold officials have announced they won’t build a mill at their Manh Choh mine near Tetlin, and they say instead they plan to haul the ore by truck from there to the Fort Knox mill north of Fairbanks – up to 192 truckloads a day.

“So, there was a lot of interest in getting these passing lanes going again,” Heim said. He says there’s long been a need for more passing lanes on the Richardson, because it already carried a lot of traffic, including tanker trucks hauling fuel and slow-moving Army convoys and, during summer and hunting season, RVs with boats and 4-wheelers in tow.

And now, there’s the Kinross trucking plan that’ll kick into gear soon after the mine begins operations in 2024.

“So, we’re kind of a little bit on a fast-track to deliver the project,” Heim said in an interview Wednesday. “We’re looking at getting the whole design done by the end of this year, and having it be in construction at the beginning of ’23.”

It would be hard to find anyone who’d oppose the idea of building more passing lanes on Alaska’s two-lane highways. But many area residents think that’s a Band-Aid cure at best.

“Passing lanes are a good idea, but they’re really a red herring,” says Gary Wilken, a longtime resident of Fairbanks who heads up a group called Advocates for Safe Alaska Highways.

“We’re talking about 192 trucks a day,” he said, “and these are trucks that are up to 120 feet long and weigh somewhere around 75 tons, loaded.”

Wilken is a former state senator and ex-board member of the Alaska Industrial Development Authority, or AIDEA, who now sits on the board of the Fairbanks-based Interior Gas Utility. He says the safety-advocacy group includes people from several communities along the route, which includes portions of the Alaska, Richardson and Steese highways. And he says they want to convince Kinross officials to consider an alternative to their trucking plan that Wilken says will have a long-lasting impact on the Interior.

“This is a generational decision that we’re involved in – whether we want to allow our highways to become their haul roads,” he said in an interview Friday.

Wilken says his group is supporting three alternatives:

  • Kinross should build an on-site mill at the Monh Choh mine. Company officials have already ruled that out, because they say it would increase the mine’s environmental impact and undercut the venture’s profits.
  • Kinross should build a rail line along the highway route, or a portion of it.
  • Kinross should build a “frontier road,” or industrial road, an unpaved, closed-to-the-public thoroughfare like the one AIDEA is building in the Ambler Mining District in northwest Alaska.

“AIDEA builds you a road and you pay for it over the life of your investment,” Wilken said. He says members of Advocates for Safe Alaska Highways hope to talk with Kinross officials soon about their proposals.
They may get a chance next week, when the company will hold two meetings about the project. The first, on Jan. 18, begins at 5:30 p.m. at Pioneer Park Civic Center in Fairbanks. The second, on Jan. 19, begins at 5 p.m. at Fast Eddy’s restaurant in Tok.

Editor's note: This report has been revised to clarify that Kinross Gold plans to run up to 192 trucks per day from Tetlin to its mill north of Fairbanks, not 384, the number that was used in the broadcast version of the story. Advocates for Safe Alaska Highways says the company will have to run 384 truck trips daily, because the trailers will be decoupled in Fairbanks and taken separately from there to the mill, because DOT restricts double trailers from traveling on the Steese Expressway and Steese Highway. But a Kinross spokesperson said Monday that company officials are still working on that and other parts of the trucking plan.