AK DOT improves roads as Manh Choh mining project moves forward

Published: Oct. 26, 2023 at 10:26 AM AKDT
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - Nearly two months ago, the Manh Choh Mine broke ground in a ceremony featuring Governor Mike Dunleavy.

The mine, located near the community of Tetlin, which is south of Tok, is projected to yield more than six hundred thousand ounces of gold out of raw ore, to be extracted over the next four and a half years.

In order to process the raw ore from the mine, the primary owner, Kinross Gold Corporation plans to truck it to a mill at their Fort Knox site north of Fairbanks.

Because of this, the project has garnered controversy in Interior Alaska since its announcement, with both the Fairbanks and North Pole City Councils expressing concerns over safety along the trucking route.

According to Kinross, mining operations began in mid-August after the project received its full permitting in May.

By the end of September, five to 10 thousand cubic yards of waste were being mined every day, with operations still ramping up.

According to Tyler Bruce, Project Director at the mine, “to develop the pits, you can’t start with your full operation. There physically isn’t the room. You first need to develop benches and working areas.”

Waste is essentially rock that doesn’t have gold content in it. This must first be extracted in order to reach the desired ore.

Once the ore can be mined, it is then stockpiled for trucking.

Meanwhile, all the trucks being used for the haul are already in Alaska, with the trailers expected to arrive over the next few months. “We’ve purchased 52 trucks in total, and then there’s two trailers per truck,” explained Bruce.

However, he said not all of these are expected to be on the road system at a given time. “You have some trucks that actually just stay at the mine, and you have some trucks that are planned for maintenance. We plan for a number of trucks to always be in the shop for preventative maintenance, and then there’ll be a few staged at a few other locations.”

Bruce said Kinross is on track to begin orientation runs along the route in October or November in order to test the timing and other statistics. “We’ve obviously done a lot of calculations on how long a round trip will take, things such as that, so orientation runs will confirm all of our plans and timing, and then essentially orientation runs transitions into us hauling ore.”

The ore haul itself is expected to start at four or five runs a day, “and then that’ll be a slow and gradual ramp-up over quite a few months, actually, and it’ll continue to ramp up through 2024,” Bruce said.

This is projected to peak at 60 trucks a day, likely near the middle of next year. Kinross says the 240-mile route intended for use was recommended as the safest by the Alaska Department of Transportation (DOT), as well as the DOT-created Transportation Advisory Committee (TAC).

According to Brenna Schaake, External Affairs Supervisor for Kinross, the route runs down " the Alaska Highway, to the Richardson Highway, to the Mitchell Express, to Peger Road, to the Johansen, to the Steese.”

Since its inception, the plan ore haul plan has created logistical hurdles for both Kinross and the State of Alaska.

The question faced by all involved is how to move the ore safely across 240 miles of public roads, many of them inhabited by residents and used daily by commuters.

To answer this question, in March 2022 the Alaska Department of Transportation funded a corridor analysis, to be performed by Alaska-based firm Kinney Engineering.

Shannon McCarthy, Communications Director for DOT, said, “The public really asked for an independent corridor analysis, because DOT has to really balance all of the users’ needs.”

The corridor analysis has been in the works for a year and a half. According to DOT, it has already cost one million dollars so far.

DOT also formed the TAC in June 2022, with the task of analyzing any risks associated with the ore haul, and coming back with recommendations.

The TAC is made up of people along the route “and landowners, and of course the entities involved like Kinross, like the school districts, like the communities themselves, so, you know, Delta, Tok, Fairbanks, for example,” said McCarthy.

Concerns from residents have ranged from safety at school bus stops to road deterioration along the route and interaction with traffic. “A lot of people have really expressed concern that they want this to be safe, and that’s something that we can act on. We’re taking those extra steps to make sure that the safety along the ore haul, that we’ve done everything we can to increase that,” according to McCarthy.

One issue to be addressed is the safety of school bus stops along the Richardson Highway, unusual for a national roadway.

While it was found that there is enough sight distance on the highway to safely see these stops coming, more room may be needed at some of them to account for ice and snow. “DOT is actually spending an additional 1.6 million dollars this fall to do some brush-cutting all along the route with those identified school bus stops to make sure that every driver, commercial driver or otherwise, has that advance notice if a school bus has stopped, and give them that ability to just slow down,” McCarthy explained, adding that a grant for digital alert systems is also being pursued.

“That’s where you put equipment on a bus that sends out a message to commercial haulers that there’s a school bus ahead and it’s stopped, so they have an alert well before they even see it,” she said.

The vehicles being used to move the ore are 95 feet long, and, when filled, will weigh 82.5 tons each.

Both DOT and Kinross note that this is a legal load, not requiring special permits or exemptions.

At peak operations, the route is expected to see the vehicles transporting 50 tons of ore 24/7, with 60 round-trips anticipated every day. Among the concerns raised by the TAC were the condition of three bridges on the Alaska Highway portion of the route, and their ability to handle the load.

These structures, over the Johnson, Gerstle and Robertson Rivers, were built during World War II, and are critical to the Interior. “They are what they call non-redundant,” McCarthy said, “So if one of them is damaged in such a way, then we would potentially lose connectivity to the lower 48, and a good deal of our food that comes up to Interior Alaska does come up via trucking.”

Along with these three, DOT is looking to replace two more bridges along the route, closer to Fairbanks.

One, the Chena Flood Control Bridge, was built in 1977. It lies just south of North Pole. According to McCarthy, “It wasn’t built to Alaska tough standards, so every single overweight vehicle has to depart the highway and go around it, and the same is true for the Chena Hot Springs Road Bridge. These are actually obstacles in our infrastructure for our commercial traffic that ultimately gets passed down to the consumer, so we do want to replace all five of those bridges.”

The replacement of all five bridges is currently budgeted between 252 and 480 million dollars.

The task of replacing the three World War II bridges, however, is expected to take several years, being completed long after the ore haul runs have begun.

However, McCarthy assured the public that “when the ore haul starts, our bridge crew is going to inspect those bridges for the first quarter of that start, and we’re going to be looking for any sign of deterioration, and if our crew notices something, that’s going to trigger a full engineering inspection of any of the bridges.”

Meanwhile, the Fairbanks community has raised concerns about the interaction between commuter traffic and the hauling vehicles, including whether these trucks will cause delays and whether passing can be done safely in winter conditions.

Prior to the announcement of the ore haul plan, the department had already approved 10 additional sections of passing lanes along the Alaska and Richardson Highways. DOT is also installing more road signs indicating that a passing lane is coming up.

McCarthy said, “It helps drivers with good decision making. In other words, if they know a passing lane is coming up, they’re not going to make a riskier pass early on. They’re going to wait for that opportunity where they feel comfortable and it’s safe to do so.”

Through the TAC, they are also working to educate the community about the project, including safe passing practices.