Members of advisory committee request a delay in the Manh Choh ore haul project

Published: Nov. 9, 2023 at 8:20 AM AKST
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - While controversy over the Manh Choh ore haul project continues, trucks from the Manh Choh Mine will soon begin transporting ore from the mine near Tetlin to the Fort Knox Mine north of Fairbanks.

The haul involves 95-foot vehicles which, when full, will weigh more than 80 tons.

In response to public concern over having these vehicles on Fairbanks roads, the Department of Transportation (DOT) funded a corridor analysis and created a committee to examine every aspect of the route in 2022.

The Transportation Advisory Committee (TAC) is looking for any areas where safety may be impacted by the ore haul and making recommendations to the DOT for actions to minimize the haul’s impact.

They’re working alongside Kinney Engineering, which is running a corridor analysis to determine impacts from the project on Alaskan roads, and the cost of improvements.

Jenny Campbell, Member of the organization Advocates for Safe Alaska Highways, and a member of the TAC, said, “Kinney Engineering has been gathering data, crunching that data and reporting out to us what that data is saying.”

According to Barbara Schuhmann, Spokesperson for Advocates for Safe Alaska Highways, also a member of the TAC, a goal of the committee is to “take a look at the ore haul and see the impacts on safety for the public and infrastructure, the environment and social and economic impacts.”

The committee includes 25 members, each a different entity with various opinions about the ore haul.

Danielle Tessen, Public Information Officer for DOT, said the body includes “enforcement or emergency response, so a real diverse group of people that were either in the area or part of an organization that could be impacted by it.”

Members also include Kinross, the Cities of Fairbanks and North Pole, the Alaska Trucking Association, and the organization Advocates for Safe Alaska Highways.

Schuhmann went on to say, “We have two villages, Healy Lake and Dot Lake. We have FAST Planning. We have the Fairbanks North Star Borough, the City of Delta Junction.”

Over its lifespan, the activities of the group have increased, with the body now meeting weekly. “They’re conducting an analysis of this stretch of highway, and they’ve categorized five impact areas, and that’s traffic safety, traffic operations, maintenance and operations; like how we maintain our roads, and assets, meaning pavement and bridges and those types of items, as well as environmental,” Tessen explained.

So far, recommendations from the TAC have led the DOT to take a number of actions, including brush cutting for visibility at school bus stops, and planning for the replacement of five bridges along the route. Tessen said, “Their voice matters a lot because they’re representing Alaskans and as a public agency, it’s our duty to listen to that and then make decisions based on that input.”

However, the limits of the committee’s influence were put to the test on October 19, when members of the TAC recommended that the Manh Choh ore haul project be delayed. “We keep voicing concerns about how this will impact safety for the motoring public and people who use the highway route all the time,” Schuhmann said.

“We are not trying to squish mining, but we’re just trying to keep what we believe are very dangerous trucks off of our roads,” Campbell clarified.

Schuhmann agreed, saying, “Advocates for Safe Alaska Highways is not anti-mining. if we had our preference, we’ve been recommending since the beginning that they ought to build a mill closer to the mine, and that would eliminate the need.”

The organization has indicated concern the ore haul is moving forward too quickly, and by all appearances, they are not alone on the TAC. “It’s sort of been growing, a feeling that we need to pause the beginning of this ore haul until we have things figured out, like winter maintenance and repairs, and the bridges. Are they going to be able to withstand this? We don’t really have the final answers on any of that,” Schuhmann explained.

In response to this sentiment, on October 19, members of the TAC took two actions challenging the ore haul plan. “For the first time, we proposed two resolutions or two requests, and they both passed,” Schuhmann said.

The first motion requests answers from Ryan Anderson, Commissioner of the DOT. “Who decided that the ore haul was okay to start... before this group, which is studying the ore haul, has had a chance to finish its work and issue recommendations, and before the DOT has a chance to really implement those,” Schuhmann said.

The second asks the DOT to delay the ore hauls until the corridor analysis is completed and certain recommendations from the committee have been implemented.

The first motion passed seven to two, the second in a closer vote of five to four.

Advocates for Safe Alaska Highways was joined in its request for a delay by the cities of Delta Junction and North Pole, the Healy Lake Village Council and the Native Village of Dot Lake.

Kinross voted against the motion, along with the Fairbanks North Star Borough, the City of Fairbanks and Explore Fairbanks. “We had quite a vigorous debate, and that’s a good thing,” Said Schuhmann.”

A number of organizations did not let their preferences be known, with nine member entities ultimately expressing an opinion. At least one committee member noted at the meeting that the TAC is not a voting body, instead acting in an advisory capacity.

Some of the actions recommended, such as the replacement of five bridges along the route, are expected to take years.

Meanwhile, Black Gold Transport has already begun orientation runs along the proposed route. Speaking of the scale of the eventual ore haul plan, Campbell said, “The addition of this many trucks, especially in the winter, is going to add a significant risk to anybody who’s driving the road.”

However, DOT Communications Director Shannon McCarthy explained the limitations of the DOT when it comes to delaying the haul project.“DOT builds, operates and maintains our highway for a wide variety of uses, including commercial trucking, and that’s what this kind of comes down to.”

According to DOT, their hands are tied when it comes to allowing the ore haul to move forward. “We regulate the use of the highways based on federal and state law, and we are not able to discriminate between different types of users. As long as the load is legal and the trucks are legal, they’re free to haul what they want to haul,” McCarthy said.

The laws that govern what constitutes a legal highway load come from the State of Alaska and the federal government.

Changes to these laws would need to happen in a legislature.

Meanwhile, this could have unforeseen impacts. “There are a number of trucks that are of the same length and of the same weight that are already operating on the Alaska, Richardson, and Steese Highways. So any law, statutory change that would occur would likely impact other operators as well, bringing fuel, food, et cetera,” according to McCarthy.

According to Kinross, the Manh Choh ore haul plan abides by all current regulations. McCarthy said, “Everything up to this point indicates that this is a legal truck and a legal load, and of course DOT will, we will confirm that with our Commercial Vehicle Compliance Officers.”

Meanwhile, the DOT is able to help the safety of the haul in other ways, from improving the roads and bridges to providing stations for the 95-foot vehicles to be weighed near the beginning of their journey. “We are offering, and they are accepting, a level 1 inspection, which is when we really take that truck from head to toe, make sure all of the things that make a commercial truck safe, making sure that those are all in good working order,” McCarthy assured the public.

Drivers will also be subject to scrutiny, “confirming they have the right license, confirming they are operating within standard hours,” she added.

It is unclear when the ore hauls will begin, but they are expected to pick up steam through 2024.

Meanwhile, on November 1, the nonprofit Committee for Safe Communities filed a motion in court asking for a preliminary injunction against the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, asking that the ore haul be temporarily halted.