The Manh Choh mining prospect near Tetlin is one of those Alaska political issues that is an absolute firestorm in one region of the state, and almost unknown everywhere else. Pretty much everyone you meet in the Interior has an opinion about the project, which is owned by Fort Knox Gold Mine operator Kinross and partner Contango Ore. The reason Manh Choh is controversial is the way in which it departs from most people’s conception of a mining project: Instead of mining ore, crushing rock, refining and smelting on site, the raw ore will be trucked a staggering 240 miles on massive trailers to the Fort Knox mine northeast of Fairbanks, where the rest of the processing will take place.
The prospect of sharing the Interior roads with 60 huge trucks per day doesn’t sit well with many Interior residents worried about safety, especially in the winter. But, as Kinross points out, their trucks will abide by legal limits on the size and weight of vehicles — fully laden, each truck will be 95 feet long and weigh 82.5 tons. Thus, even if the state were taking a more skeptical tack toward the operation, options for making the mining companies modify it may be limited — but not impossible. And generally speaking, the state tries to be accommodating to new economic opportunities, as it should.
However, there are a few aspects of the Manh Choh plan that go far beyond the state’s regular pro-business tack. The state is spending federal Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act funding — as well as a required state match — on replacing five bridges along the trucking route, at least two of which have no need of replacement under regular traffic. Most notably, the northbound bridge over the Chena Flood Control Project near North Pole, which fully laden trucks will traverse, is being replaced. Its southbound companion bridge, on the other hand, which will only be used by empty trucks, isn’t seeing any kind of improvement, indicating that the northbound replacement is solely to accommodate the ore trucks. On its face, this looks like a classic case of corporate welfare, where the government is spending tax revenue to benefit one specific party. The Department of Transportation has yet to credibly say otherwise.
Moreover, although the loads the ore trucks carry will be within legal limits, they clearly go well beyond the kind of use anticipated by our commonwealth model of shared resource ownership. In addition to requiring the wholesale replacing of perfectly good bridges, the burden that the ore trucks will place on the roads will shorten their lifespan, likely by a considerable amount.
Here in Southcentral, we’ve seen the rutting that takes place on the Glenn Highway and other major thoroughfares simply because of studded tires. And as a nod to that heavier impact, drivers who buy studded tires pay a fee to the state at the point of purchase. Would it be impossible or improper to assess some similar toll given the outsize impact of the ore trucks on the highways they traverse?
Anticipating questions about the operation’s impact on state roads, Kinross’s project website says that it will contribute to highway funding via the state’s fuel tax, just like all of the rest of us. The gas tax funding model is fairly equitable under normal traffic conditions, but it doesn’t address the vast disparity in road use and impact under the current plan. The road wear per gallon of gas is exponentially higher in the ore-haul plan, and it’s not fair to ask Alaskans to fund that wear with every gallon they pump into their cars and four-wheelers. If the state wanted to recoup funds to account for the increased wear and tear on our highways, it would have to do so by increasing a tax burden borne nearly entirely by regular Alaskans who don’t use the roads any more than they did before.
As for the state’s role, Gov. Dunleavy and his administration haven’t adequately explained why they’re devoting state and federal money to improvements that benefit a private Outside mining company greatly but Alaskans themselves far less — especially in light of the fact that there’s no shortage of other highway and bridge improvements that would affect residents more. It’s not as though there haven’t been Alaska-based models of how road projects for mining development can be a fairer deal fiscally: The port and road to the Red Dog mine site in Northwest Alaska was initially financed by the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, and the mine operator repaid the state in user fees. No such arrangement is in place for the projects being done to benefit Manh Choh’s operators.
Kinross and Contango have been scrupulous in making sure their operation is legal. The problem Alaska faces — and the reason why so many Interior residents are upset — is that there’s a gap between what’s legal and what’s fair. In such matters, it’s the responsibility of the state to work on behalf of its people to make sure their interests and rights are protected. To be clear, the Manh Choh mine is a good project that will benefit an area that desperately needs economic activity. It should absolutely be built. But at the same time, Kinross is taking advantage of our collective ownership of state roads. In such matters, it’s the responsibility of the state to strike a fair balance by requiring Kinross to bear a portion of the costs it’s going to incur; the company shouldn’t get a free ride. So far, that responsibility has not been fulfilled — and the state isn’t saying why it hasn’t worked harder to make sure it is.