Ambler Road faces near-unanimous opposition at Fairbanks public hearing

Published: Nov. 7, 2023 at 3:22 PM AKST
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - The voices of tribal leaders and area residents rang with disapproval at Raven Landing Community Center during a BLM-hosted public hearing Thursday, as 38 of the 40 people who took to the microphone slammed the mining road for its detriments to the environment and public health.

The hearing was a consequence of the Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for the Ambler Road project that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released in October, which followed a federal remand in 2022. The U.S. Department of the Interior moved for the delay so BLM could further analyze “cultural resources and subsistence matters,” something the department said the original Environmental Impact Statement did not do adequately.

At the hearing, almost all testifiers urged bureau officials to halt the Ambler Road project. This is a 211-mile path to copper, zinc and other mineral deposits that’s backed by Ambler Metals and Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, a public corporation.

At the top of their list of concerns, speakers cited fear for Yukon, Kobuk and Koyukuk River fisheries as well as a caribou herd whose population has plummeted in recent years.

“The industrial traffic rumbling down this road would cross 2,900 streams, 11 major rivers, and 2,000 acres of wetlands,” said Emily Hikus, of Fairbanks. “The dozens of bridges and hundreds of culverts needed to cross them will bisect and impede fish movements needed to spawn, and the path of the road will disrupt the critical migration route of the Western Arctic Caribou Herd,” she added.

According to Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the downward trend for the Western Arctic Caribou Herd continued in 2023, with biologists putting the estimate at about 152,000, Anchorage Daily News recently reported. Population estimates from 2022 had the herd at 164,000, what was then a 40-year low.

Those numbers capture the drop when compared to modern highs from the early 2000s of nearly 480,000 animals in the herd.

In addition to concerns about fish and wildlife, speakers anxiously considered what mining camps in the region might mean for women in the region.

“There is a demonstrated statistical effect of MMIW (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women) increasing in the presence of these man camps,” said Kendall Martinez, of North Pole.

A 2019 report from the Bureau of Justice statistics used crime data from 2006-2012 in the Bakken oil-producing region in Montana and North Dakota, finding a 70 percent increase in aggravated assault during that period, with no similar increase in the surrounding areas.

Also a 2017 study found an increase in violent crime toward and sex trafficking of Native women near Fort Berthold reservation in North Dakota after an influx of oil workers who were living in temporary housing.

A study of that kind has not been replicated in Alaska for mining camps, however.

At the center of the Ambler debate lies the additional question of future developments. Many who stepped up to speak Thursday raised eyebrows at the environmental impacts for not only the main 250-foot wide, two-way corridor that the BLM’s assessments took into account, but also the mines and side roads yet to be fully analyzed.

“While the impacts of the proposed road are substantial and unacceptable, the indirect effects of at least four large-scale mines, and perhaps up to a dozen other mines of varying sizes will be disastrous,” First Chief of Evansville Tribal Council Frank Thompson said during the hearing.

Tanana Chiefs Conference Chief/Chairman Brian Ridley, who also criticized the Ambler Project at the hearing, said in an interview Monday that he was happy that Fairbanks came out in mostly unified opposition to the road.

“So many times in recent years, I feel like Native people are the only ones fighting to protect the lands, waters and animals, and it’s nice to see the local public fighting the same fight that we’re fighting to try to stop the Ambler Road,” Ridley said, and paused before adding, “That’s what I really appreciated.”

The TCC Chief/Chairman went on to compare some of the trucking effects from the road to the Kinross Manh Choh ore haul plan, which has been in the Interior’s public spotlight for months, as the company gets set for 240-mile hauls from Tetlin to Fort Knox.

“The Ambler trucking of the ore through Fairbanks to Anchorage so it can be shipped overseas would be 50 more trucks per day than that other mine,” Ridley said.

But two proponents of the project also delivered their piece in front of the public audience and BLM officials, with leaders from the Ambler Access Project giving input in favor, emphasizing the road as a door for opportunity.

Deputy Program Manager Craig Jones, who is from Ambler, said he joined up so he could get a seat at the table, and touted access for the villages as the main reason he began supporting the industrial-use only road.

“So I’m here to say that, as Deputy Program Manager of this project, I’m going to address all these things, I’m going make sure they stay on the table,” Jones said. “I’m not building a mine. I’m building access for people to remain in their communities.”

The Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement that the BLM released in October kicked off a 60-day public comment period, and the hearing in Fairbanks was the first of 9 the Bureau will conduct across the state as a part of this process.

The public can also voice their thoughts and opinions online. The last day to submit comments is Dec. 22.

The BLM says it will respond to all comments deemed “substantive,” which will include things like empirical studies and traditional knowledge, and will incorporate those responses in the final impact statement. The BLM will issue a final record of decision in mid-2024.