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Alaska investment board approves summer work for controversial Arctic mining road

Alaska’s state investment corporation has approved a $1 million survey plan for the Ambler Access Project, a controversial mining road in the Brooks Range.

In a unanimous vote, the board of the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority approved spending up to $500,000 this year, with that spending matched up front by Ambler Metals, a company that envisions digging mines in the area served by the 211-mile road.

AIDEA officials said the money will pay for aerial surveys along a portion of the road’s planned route. Earlier this year, AIDEA stocked its Arctic Infrastructure Development Fund with $35 million. The survey work will use money from that account and from Ambler Metals, and AIDEA officials said they envision the mining firm will extend the deal to the rest of the road’s pre-development work.

Through late 2019, AIDEA and the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities had spent about $26.2 million on the road. At the time, AIDEA’s executive director said another $25 million to $50 million would be needed before the start of construction.

Construction of a two-lane access road has been estimated to cost $350 million. AIDEA expects to sell bonds to cover those costs, then recoup its investment by charging tolls on mining companies that would use the road.

Ambler Metals could be one of those companies, but the agreement approved Wednesday allows the firm to credit its current spending against any eventual tolls, meaning the state would bear the full cost of the current work if the road is built. If the road is not built, AIDEA officials said the agreement does not allow Ambler Metals to seek reimbursement from the state.

AIDEA is a public corporation owned by the state of Alaska. Its mission is to encourage economic development in the state and it has been working since 2013 on the Ambler Road, said Alan Weitzner, AIDEA’s interim executive director.

Speaking to the board, Weitzner said the road is “exactly the kind of project the Legislature established AIDEA for.”

This spring, the corporation envisioned a bigger scope of work, something that could employ more than 100 people, but with the coronavius pandemic continuing, Weitzner said the work has been scaled back.

Public testimony was mixed on Wednesday, with about half the speakers opposed to the summer work and half in favor.

“I totally oppose this road,” said John Horner of Kobuk.

“This is really going to affect our culture and our way of life,” he said.

Other testifiers raised environmental and cost concerns.

Some testifiers said AIDEA should be spending Ambler Road money on business-relief efforts amid the coronavirus pandemic. The corporation is already operating two programs intended to assist companies suffering from the economic effects of the pandemic.

Pro-road testifiers said the project is necessary to encourage the state’s economy in the long term.

“It’s going to take 20 years to get us a mine going, but if we don’t start now, in 20 years, we’re not going to have anything,” said Michael Jespersen of Anchorage.

Siikauraq Martha Whiting, planning director for the Northwest Arctic Borough, said the borough has already issued a resolution backing the road but said Wednesday’s resolution might be premature because the federal officials have not issued final permits.

Doyon Ltd., the regional Native corporation for Interior Alaska, raised concerns before the meeting, saying that AIDEA also has not received permission from all landowners — including itself — along the route of the road.

Mat-Su road surveying also approved

In a separate vote, AIDEA’s board also approved a $425,000 survey needed to pinpoint the route of a 100-mile road into the western portion of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.

The latest proposed route for the road starts at what’s now a snowmachine trailhead at Ayrshire Road, crosses the Susitna River and then travels through wetlands before reaching the Skwentna River, which it also crosses. The road follows the north bank of the Skwentna to the Whiskey/Bravo airstrip, a gravel runway used as a gold-mining base.

The road’s projected route would parallel a portion of the route envisioned for a gas pipeline intended to supply the proposed Donlin gold mine.

The survey agreement calls for AIDEA to spend up to $162,500 and various private companies to pay for the rest. The Matanuska-Susitna Borough government will support the effort but not provide upfront cash. The borough assembly approved the agreement last week, following a series of amendments intended to safeguard hunting and fishing in the area.

The survey work will take place this fall, with the surveyor presenting a final report by the end of the year.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that John Horner is a member of the Kobuk Traditional Council. He is a former member.

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