Rural Alaska

Environmentalists and Alaska villages continue court challenge of permits for Ambler Road project

Tribal and environmental organizations moved forward this month in their challenge to the federal government’s approval of the Ambler Road project in Northwest Alaska.

The 211-mile road would stretch from the Dalton Highway to the Ambler Mining District and provide the infrastructure necessary for potential copper and zinc mines in the district.

Several environmental organizations stated that federal agencies approved the road in violation of multiple statutes and despite a lack of information about the project. In court filings Dec. 1, they urged the U.S. District Court in Alaska to void project-related permits — including the Joint Record of Decision approving development of the road, the final environmental impact statement and the permits allowing for discharge of dredged or fill materials into waters and wetlands and for crossing federally owned lands along the route.

“This project never should have been approved in the first place,” said Suzanne Bostrom, senior staff attorney at Trustees for Alaska, which represents the plaintiffs. “The agencies rubber-stamped this project without having enough information about what was even being proposed.”

According to the filing by plaintiffs, federal agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and National Park Service failed to adequately assess the impacts of the project, violating the National Environmental Policy Act, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act and Clean Water Act.

The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, the state-owned corporation in charge of the Ambler Road project, declined to comment. The U.S. Interior Department, the defendant in the two Ambler Road lawsuits brought forward by environmental and tribal organizations, declined to comment as well.

The road would be open only to mining-related industrial use and would cost $350 million, according to the BLM. The road alone is expected to bring 360 jobs during construction and up to 81 jobs in operations and maintenance, according to Charlene Ostbloom, the project’s communications manager at AIDEA.

If built, the 211-mile road would run through caribou habitat and cross a multitude of rivers and streams. According to the plaintiffs, the waste from construction and traffic could contaminate the streams and harm fish. Moving vehicles and noise could also divert animal migration and harm the subsistence resources of the local people, the plaintiffs said.

This summer, AIDEA conducted cultural resource surveys and hydrology analysis and worked on a fish habitat study, according to the project website. The results haven’t been published yet. The agency in September also created the Subsistence Advisory Committee Working Group to invite local communities to voice concerns and recommendations for the project. The BLM also conducted hearings to hear and gather comments about potential impacts to subsistence use.

Seth Kantner, who hunts, runs dogs, fishes and subsists in the region, was one of the plaintiffs’ representatives who described the harm of the project in his Dec. 1 declaration to the court.

“A massive project like the Ambler Road would pollute the water, fish, and natural food I depend on,” Kantner said. “It would also bring disruption in the form of noise and changed migration patterns for animals such as caribou which are a primary food source for residents of the region.”

“Our entire way of life would be changed by the enormous upheaval of building the Ambler Road,” he added.

Kantner is a member of plaintiff organizations the Wilderness Society and Alaska Wildlife Alliance. The full list of plaintiffs includes the Northern Alaska Environmental Center, Northern Alaska Environmental Center, Alaska Community Action On Toxics, Alaskans for Wildlife, Center for Biological Diversity, Earthworks, National Audubon Society, National Parks Conservation Association, Sierra Club and Winter Wildlands Alliance.

Now that the plaintiffs have filed their brief, the defendant — the Interior Department — will file its argument on Jan. 21, and the defendant intervenors, the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, will file theirs Feb. 11. Then the plaintiffs will file a response on March 4. Once all the briefs are complete, the court can decide the case.

Tribal lawsuit

In a separate lawsuit, tribal governments and a tribal consortium last week also filed a brief in their challenge to the approval of the project. They said the project approval violated several federal laws, including the subsistence protections of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, the resource protection of the National Historic Preservation Act and environmental requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act.

“Tanana Chiefs Conference, Huslia, Allakaket, Alatna, Evansville and Tanana tribe filed a lawsuit against BLM because they did not follow the federal mandates of government-to-government consultation and they did that during the height of the pandemic,” said PJ Simon, TCC’s chief and chairman.

Simon said that the project can affect wildlife and fish resources that feed and sustain the culture of the tribes of northern Interior Alaska.

“The previous federal administration downplayed the huge risk of the project to our people and culture,” Simon said in a prepared statement. “It is as if the government used a bulldozer to push these decisions through, not caring what law was in their path, just like they want to use a bulldozer to build this road through our traditional lands, not caring what wildlife, fish, culture or people are in its path.”

Alena Naiden

Alena Naiden writes about communities in the North Slope and Northwest Arctic regions for the Arctic Sounder and ADN. Previously, she worked at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

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