In aftermath of record of decision delay, Ambler project to see another DOI report later this month

A status update from the Bureau of Land Management is expected July 18
FastCast digital headlines for Thursday, July 6, 2023.
Published: Jul. 6, 2023 at 3:04 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The Department of the Interior has delayed the release of a record of decision for the controversial Ambler Access Project, an endeavor formally initiated by the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority years ago that seeks to build a 211-mile road from milepost 161 of the Dalton Highway to the Ambler Mining District, which is near the community of Ambler and several other villages along the southern reaches of the Brooks Range.

Another status report on the proposed development — also known as the Ambler Road Project — from the Department of the Interior is due in just a few weeks. It’s expected to be the first since the delay was announced in a prior status report in May.

The Bureau of Land Management’s most recent timeline, announced in the May report, pushed a final decision out by about six months, moving the anticipated release of the ROD, or Record of Decision, on the private access road — which would not be open to the public and, AIDEA said, would be controlled access for commercial use only — from late 2023 to mid-2024.

“Where we’re at is continuing to be frustrated with delays and increased costs of the federal permitting system, including the BLM’s right-of-way permitting that we’re going through,” AIDEA Executive Director Randy Ruaro said. “AIDEA pays for that work, and we would hope and expect that the agency would complete its work on time.

“We’re not seeing that, and you know, those delays have an impact.”

Designed as a way to facilitate mine development as part of the Ambler Access Project, the road would go through lands owned by various entities, including federal, state, and municipal agencies, along with private owners. It would cut through the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, crossing thousands of streams and multiple major rivers, and involving subsistence fishing areas for communities such as Shugnak, Ambler, Bettles, and Evansville.

The State of Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities began evaluating routes that could provide access to the mining district in the early 2000′s. In 2013, AIDEA, a public corporation of the state, took over.

As of now, right-of-way authorizations through the Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service lands, along with other permissions, have already been secured with a final environmental impact statement released in 2020.

The development has been highly touted by agencies and organizations such as AIDEA and the Alaska Miners Association, both of which have pointed to allowances already granted. Those include a 2020 joint decision from the Department of the Interior, BLM, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that was later remanded, with the DOI seeking a voluntary court remand in February 2022 to conduct a supplemental environmental impact statement. The court agreed to that request three months later.

“We’re losing some opportunities to get people to work,” Ruaro said. “It’s frustrating, but it’s not that unexpected in my mind, because frankly, the federal permitting system is broken. It takes years and years longer than it does in some countries with comparable environmental requirements.”

Ambler Metals LLC, which is AIDEA’s counterpart in the joint venture to develop the Ambler Mining District, was founded in 2020 and is headquartered in Anchorage with a satellite office in Fairbanks. The company is owned by South32 Limited and Trilogy Metals, which joined forces in 2017 for a three-year exploration agreement before founding Ambler Metals, according to the Ambler Metals website. South32 is an Australia-based mining company established in 2015 and boasting 11 operations in six countries around the world, while Trilogy Metals’ main office is in Vancouver, British Columbia, and is focused on the Upper Kobuk Mineral Projects in the Ambler Mining District.

Ambler Metals is also working under a partnership with the Northwest Alaska Native Association Regional Corporation, also known as NANA.

As noted in a joint statement from AIDEA and Ambler Metals and confirmed by the Department of Natural Resources, the DOI’s next report is due July 18. A DNR spokesperson said that while that’s the expected date for the status report from the BLM — which is under the umbrella of the Department of the Interior — it isn’t known what the report might contain.

“DNR continues to monitor and participate in the federal review,” wrote DNR Director of Communications Lorraine Henry via email, “and believes BLM appears to be more or less on track with their recently stated timelines – although prior timelines have seen delays.”

Additionally, following the release of the draft Environmental Impact Statement, the document will be open for public comment.

“You know, this Administration and this DOI decided to pull it back to look at it further,” Deantha Skibinski of the Alaska Miners Association said. “To have another six-month delay on the remand they instigated on behalf of the agency is really disappointing.”

Proponents of the mine maintain the industrial access road will encourage economic growth in Alaska, including support of mineral resources exploration and development of natural resources overall. They also cite the creation of new jobs through the road’s construction and operation, and the operation of future mine developments, among other things.

The Ambler Mining District, to which the road would allow surface travel, is also said to be rich with critical minerals that are essential to the clean energy transition and national security, according to Alaska’s Congressional delegation. Materials include but are not limited to copper, cobalt, zinc, and gallium.

The North Slope Borough and Northwest Arctic Borough Assemblies — both of which have home rule charters and thus possess planning and permitting authorities for their areas — also passed a joint resolution earlier this year expressing support for the Ambler Access Project.

At the same time, clear opposition to the project remains. While the dollar expenditures of three routes identified as “reasonable” within the Joint ROD range from $579.3 million to $1.09 billion, other groups have cited non-monetary costs they believe would be the result of the Ambler Road project and the developments to which it could lead.

Groups based in Alaska and the Lower 48 have also spoken out against the development of the road and any related projects, expressing concern over what they maintain are threats to Arctic land and water, wildlife, and people across a large swath of land.

“We are deeply concerned that mining companies and the State of Alaska could largely continue with their plans to pour millions of dollars this year into harmful construction efforts on the Ambler mining road,” said Alaska Senior Program Manager for the National Parks Conservation Association Alex Johnson as part of a prepared statement against the Ambler Road that was released shortly after the DOI remand request last year.

The association also alleged “lack of transparency and accountability, particularly in funding the Ambler proposal” on the part of AIDEA, with Johnson saying “the Biden Administration failed to fully address concerns from Alaska Native tribes, local communities and the American people who have a vested interest in the continued connectivity and resilience of the Western Arctic.”

One of the lawsuits against the project was filed by multiple Alaska Native tribes, as well as a tribal consortium which is ongoing in federal court, alleging federal agencies violated multiple laws, including the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. Their concerns, documents show, include what they believe is a lack of planning as well as a lack of clarity on how subsistence resources, such as fish and caribou, would be protected.

The suit has also seen multiple tribes withdraw from participation, though, with the Allakaket and Huslia Tribal Councils voting this past February to sever their involvement in the federal litigation.

The Tanana Chiefs Conference, however, is one of those which remain part of the lawsuit and has called directly for the state to stop pursuing the road, calling the project “rushed, flawed, and premature.”

Alaska’s congressional delegation sees it differently. Earlier this month, the trio of Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Rep. Mary Peltola said in a joint statement that the delay is “needless,” expressing frustration at the federal government’s choice to push back the date for an anticipated decision and stating that the project is guaranteed access across federal lands under legislation dating back to the 1980′s. Murkowski, Sullivan, and Peltola said the delay to the project, which is in its eighth year of federal permitting, is costing jobs and a domestic source of minerals.

“Many reports have pointed to the urgent need to responsibly develop more of these minerals,” the delegation wrote “but the continued failure to do so will only work against secure domestic supply chains, affordable goods for American families and businesses, and the broader energy transition.

“We are committed to holding Interior accountable to the original timeline it provided to the Court to address two discreet deficiencies in the EIS, and have requested a meeting with Secretary Haaland to urge her to put this vital project back on track.”