A new group has filed a lawsuit in Alaska Superior Court seeking to stop a mining company from hauling double-trailer trucks filled with gold ore across a wide swath of Alaska’s public highways.
The Committee for Safe Communities, a Fairbanks-based nonprofit, highlights roadway safety concerns and risks to children awaiting school buses, according to the 16-page complaint filed in Fairbanks court last week.
The complaint names the state and the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities as defendants.
State officials and the mining company say they’re following the law, and taking numerous steps to ensure the safety of the roads.
The plan has generated deep concern, especially in Fairbanks and other communities along the route where drivers would share the road with the trucks.
Patrice Lee, a member of the committee, said the trucks will travel along two-lane, curving roads, passing hundreds of connecting driveways and many areas where children wait for school buses.
She said the extra truck traffic will lead to additional crashes. Kinney Engineering, a company hired by the state to analyze the route, has calculated that with additional traffic, there could be an additional 10 crashes annually along the route. It’s also possible that there would be no additional crashes.
The giant trucks will pass every 12 minutes on average, putting travelers at serious risk, Lee said.
“No car or any other vehicle will win in a collision with that, not a school bus, or someone skiing, or a dog or someone that broke down on the side of the road,” she said.
A long-distance run
Peak Gold expects to begin hauling loaded trucks on test runs over the next week, Kinross Gold representatives said Thursday. Peak Gold is owned primarily by mining company Kinross Gold, based in Toronto.
Operations will grow from there, with full implementation in mid-2024, said Anna Atchison, head of external affairs for Kinross in the U.S.
Atchison said the company has ordered newly built trucks with safety features that include drowsiness-detection technology to keep drivers alert.
Ore-filled trucks will travel about 240 miles, starting at the Manh Choh mine near Tok, not far from the Canadian border, according to the project website.
The trucks will head northwest into the state’s Interior on the Alaska and Richardson highways. The ore will be milled at Kinross’ Fort Knox Gold Mine northeast of Fairbanks.
Fully loaded, the rigs will weigh 165,000 pounds and stretch 95 feet. The plan calls for 60 daily trips to the mill, round the clock, with a truck passing every 24 minutes one-way.
Then they’ll return to the open-pit gold mine to load up again.
The group asserts in the complaint that the state is allowing hauling to begin before it has fully studied and implemented critical safety steps, such as replacing aging bridges and improving road conditions. They say the state is violating its own regulations, and exposing the public to unreasonable risks.
“The public roads Peak Gold plans to use for the Ore Haul Operation have not been designated by AKDOT for industrial use,” the complaint says. “Peak Gold has not obtained any transportation special permits. No environmental impact statement has been prepared for any part of the mining plan or Ore Haul Operation.”
Shannon McCarthy, director of communications for the state transportation department, said Tuesday that the trucks meet requirements and don’t need special permits. Fuel trucks of similar length and weight already use the same highways, she said.
She said the state is taking measures to improve the safety of the roads, such as clearing brush to improve visibility around bus stops and other areas of the route. She said the state is adding passing lanes, though the lawsuit argues that the measures won’t be completed before the hauling is scheduled to start.
McCarthy said the state created a technical advisory committee about 1 1/2 years ago to address concerns and help improve the project. It consists of tribal entities and community groups along the route, along state officials and others.
The advisory committee recently asked the state to pause the plan, she said.
“We don’t have the ability to tell a commercial operation to stop, unless the truck is overweight or over-height or operating in an unsafe manner,” McCarthy said.
She said that’s not the case here.
“The information provided to us by Kinross shows us this is a legal truck,” she said.
New trucks for the job
The mining company has spent $30 million with Black Gold Transport to pay for 52 trucks with modern safety features, Atchison said. Black Gold is an Alaska company that will haul the ore.
The trucks come with technology that detects driver movements, alerting a dispatcher who can check with the driver if they might seem sleepy, she said.
Atchison said the fleet will have 16 axles, a large number to distribute their weight, reducing impacts and improving braking power, she said.
After Kinross acquired its stake in the mine in 2020, it has gone to great lengths to publicly disclose the hauling plan, she said.
The company has adjusted plans after hearing concerns, including by committing to slow or stop operations when heavy levels of fresh snow affect visibility, she said.
“Anyone familiar with how we operate knows that we operate in the most stringent manner relating to safety as possible, and that is without a doubt our key focus and always will be,” she said.
Concerns about aging bridges
The lawsuit says the trucks cannot legally travel along a portion of the route through Fairbanks — Peger Road and Johansen Expressway — even if the state had issued a special permit for the plan.
McCarthy said the ore-haul trucks can legally use the route through Fairbanks. The Peger and Johansen routes for years have been a well-established route for large commercial trucks, McCarthy said.
“Their reading of the regulation I think is a misunderstanding,” she said of the committee.
The complaint raises other safety concerns.
It says two of the bridges that must be crossed, the Gerstle and Johnson river bridges on the Alaska Highway, have been deemed “structurally deficient” by the state transportation agency. They could potentially collapse under the weight of the ore-hauls, it says.
The Robertson River bridge is another aging bridge on the highway, also built during the World War II era like the Gerstle and Johnson river bridges.
The state is working to replace the bridges but they are not in danger of collapsing, McCarthy said.
She said the “structurally deficient” term does not mean a bridge is unsafe. That term has been replaced with “poor condition.”
The state transportation agency intends to first complete work on the Johnson River bridge by the end of next year, McCarthy said. It hopes to replace the Gerstle bridge in 2025, and the one at the Robertson in 2028, she said.
The village of Dot Lake, population 40, sits between the Johnson and Robertson bridges.
Residents are concerned the bridges will buckle under the truck’s heavy loads, said Tracy Charles-Smith, a member of the committee that brought the lawsuit.
Charles-Smith, also president of the tribal council for the village, said the community has stocked up on extra fuel and food for this winter. People fear any damage to the bridges will hurt access to those supplies.
The village is located along the highway, so that puts homes and structures in danger if a truck barrels off the road, she said.
“We’re worried about the safety of the public and our tribal members,” she said.
Concerns about school bus stops
The complaint says Kinney Engineering reported after an initial analysis that there’s not enough sighting distance for the trucks to stop safely on icy roads at 35 school bus stop locations.
McCarthy said that the state will clear brush off the highways to improve sight distance along the road and around bus stops by the end of the year, or earlier. She said Alaska is unusual because it has bus stops on national highway system roads.
McCarthy also said the state is conducting its most stringent level of inspections on the Manh Choh trucks and drivers, which have begun making test runs without ore.
She said the state has added passing lanes along two 2-mile sections along the Alaska Highway. The state plans to tackle a series of expansions starting next year, covering 75 miles on the Richardson Highway, a two-year project. The state also plans additional expansions in the future along the route, she said.
The state’s proposed safety improvements won’t be completed before the project begins, the complaint asserts.
The state is “favoring one user over all others, denying equal protection of the laws to all users,” the complaint says. It’s asking the judge for an order requiring the state transportation agency to “fulfill all steps” required by state law.