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Proposed Road for Mining Project Could Have Devastating Impact on Alaska Habitat

Native Alaskans and environmental groups fear damage to the habitat and interruption of wildlife migration if approved.

A proposed road for mining operations in Alaska by Ambler Metals could have devastating impact on the Koyukuk River. Fish numbers are already so low that people on the Koyukuk River can no longer fish, said Travis Cole, Koyukon Athabaskan, and he fears the road project "would just destroy what’s left.”

Ambler Metals says the minerals it wants to extract in Alaska’s Brooks Range are necessary for the manufacture of clean energy technologies, including electric vehicles and wind turbines.

But it will take cutting a road across salmon streams and caribou foraging and migration routes to access the areas where the minerals would be mined.

That has Alaska Native communities and environmental advocates worried. And a well-documented article by the Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan policy institute, states that more high-value minerals, such as silver and gold, will be extracted than minerals used in green technology.

Travis Cole, Koyukon Athabascan, a board member of the Fairbanks Native Association, said the impact would be disastrous.

“I grew up on the banks of the Koyukuk River from Huslia to Hughes to Allakaket to Bettles,” Cole wrote to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. “Fishing, hunting, gathering berries, drinking water right from the river. Sport hunters came to the area by road or by airplane [and] made it hard to hunt moose or geese. Now with the fish numbers so low that people on the Koyukuk River can’t fish, it’s getting hard to find animals to hunt to provide food for families. The Ambler road would just destroy what’s left.”

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is expected to issue its decision in the second quarter of 2024 on whether to allow the proposed Ambler Mining District Industrial Access Road to be built between Bornite, northwest of Kobuk in western Alaska, and the Dalton Highway in eastern Alaska.

The public comment period on the BIA’s revised environmental impact study, known as an EIS, ended in December and the final study is scheduled to be issued by March, BIA spokesman Geoff Beyersdorf told ICT.

The revised EIS includes comments from Native Alaskans who say the access road would interfere with wildlife migration routes, pollute salmon streams and negatively affect traditional lifeways.

“The potential short-term economic benefits of building this road pale in comparison to the risks to fish and wildlife populations,” said James Majetich, coordinator of the Alaska chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers.

“It will lead to degradation of the world’s foremost sheefish fishery in the Kobuk River, harm Kobuk River chum salmon stocks that contribute to the Kotzebue Sound commercial fishery, and disrupt the migration and food sources of the Western Arctic caribou herd that is depended upon by the residents of Northwest Alaska for food security,” he said. “All fish and wildlife stakeholders will suffer — subsistence practitioners, sport fishers, sport hunters, and commercial fishermen.”

A study published in October 2023 by the Ecological Society of America found similar effects on wildlife migration caused by oil field roads in the North Slope area – even on roads with traffic levels as low as five vehicles an hour. Alaska Public Media reported on the study on Jan. 16.

Caribou herds migrate in summer to areas where wind and cool temperatures protect them from summer heat and insects. According to the study, caribou selected areas further from roads – up to 1.8 miles – “during the post-calving and mosquito seasons and selected areas with lower traffic volumes during all seasons, with selection probabilities peaking when traffic was <5 vehicles [an hour].

“Using road-crossing models, we found that caribou were less likely to cross roads during the insect seasons as traffic increased, but that response dissipated as insect harassment became more severe. Past studies suggested that caribou exhibit behavioral responses when traffic exceeds 15 vehicles [an hour], but our results demonstrate behavioral responses at much lower traffic levels.”

Allen Dahl, Yup’ik, a member of the Native Council in Bethel, urged the BLM to look at “the many social, cultural and environmental impacts” of the proposed Ambler Road.

“Traditional and subsistence practices could be impacted by the road or mines,” he said.

He outlined other possible impacts: violent crime and substance abuse that are associated with worker camps, also known as “man camps”; the cost of food if subsistence sources are lost; questionable numbers of jobs for Alaskans; money going out of the region and state; and impacts to trails, hunting grounds and sacred sites.

First Peoples Worldwide, an advocacy organization affiliated with the University of Colorado Boulder, detailed in a 2020 report the association between “man camps” and substance abuse and violence.

“The camps by nature create a rapid increase in the population of the area, which can strain community infrastructure, such as law enforcement and human services, especially in rural areas where law enforcement is charged with providing services to extensive swaths of land,” the report states. “The increase in population can lead to an increase in physical and sexual violence, including rape, sexual assault, sexual assault of minors, and sex trafficking in the affected communities.”

Concerns for the safety of Indigenous women and children have been expressed throughout the Ambler Road environmental impact study process, and was reported by BLM in its impact study.

“Increases in the rate of violent victimization, particularly the rate of aggravated assault, have been reported in other areas of the United States that experienced a rapid increase in jobs and population as a result of resource extraction projects,” the environmental study states.

“Indigenous women are particular targets of gender violence and sex trafficking near camps where the majority of male extractive workers live. Increased access to drugs and alcohol and potential for sex trafficking and gender violence has been a tribal concern shared during [government-to-government] consultation with the BLM.”

April Monroe, an advocate for social and environmental justice living in Fairbanks, worked successfully for several years for the release of four Native men who had been wrongfully convicted of a fatal assault. She took umbrage at BLM’s statement that gender violence might follow “mixing with typically young, single male road and mine worker crews.”

In an interview with ICT, Monroe said the word “mixing” implies that consensual interaction would have taken place before the gender violence occurred, a view she said ignores the realities of violence against Indigenous women and children in Alaska and elsewhere.

Additional Study

Ambler Metals proposes extracting 10,000 tons of ore per day for 12 years from an open pit mine located 168 miles east of Kotzebue, 22 miles northeast of Kobuk, and 162 miles west of the Dalton Highway.

The site is in the southern Brooks Range in the Northwest Arctic Borough of Alaska.

The ore would be trucked to Fairbanks on the Ambler Access Road and the Dalton Highway, then transferred by rail to the Port of Anchorage.

Ambler Metals expects the mine will yield high-grade copper, as well as zinc, lead, gold and silver. On its website, the company projects a construction workforce of approximately 600 and an operating workforce of approximately 450.

The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, a state agency, applied for the right-of-way across federal public land for construction of an industrial access road into the Ambler Mining District.

A decision granting the right of way was issued in July 2020, but the U.S. District Court for Alaska remanded the case to the U.S. Department of the Interior after Interior reported finding deficiencies in BLM’s analysis of subsistence impacts.

The Interior Department told the court it wanted to consider new information about declines in salmon and caribou populations, and more thoroughly assess the project’s impacts on other resources.

BLM considered three alternatives:

*The state agency’s preferred route along the southern flanks of the Brooks Range to the Ambler River; that route would cross through the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve.

*The state agency’s proposed alternative, which would dip southward near Gates of the Arctic to cross the national preserve farther south than in the state’s preferred route.

*A route that would instead pass through the Ray Mountains and through the Tanana, Hughes, Hogatza and Kobuk areas. Some 274 miles of road would cross BLM land, far more than the other alternatives.

All alternatives would result in impacts to vegetation, wetlands and wildlife habitat.

“Besides direct fill in wetland and vegetation habitat due to road construction, the areas near the road would be affected by road dust, noise, movement, and light or shading (at culverts and bridges), and potentially spills of pollutants from truck traffic,” the environmental study states.

The road would impact fish habitat and alter fish passage because of changes to channels, flows, sedimentation, and installation of culverts and bridge piers.

Caribou migration would be affected by the presence of a road and road noise. Depending on the road alternative selected, between 4,120 and 4,775 acres of caribou habitat would be affected, the report states.

Some Alaskans commenting on the project suggested that BLM expand its list of alternative routes to include a corridor west to a port on the Bering Sea, not east to the Dalton Highway.

Some mining companies adopt what are called “sustainable mining practices” that are designed to minimize environmental impact, reduce waste, and conserve resources.

“Sustainable means using innovative technology to reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions, optimize water usage and improve waste management,” according to the website for Gillmann Services, a national company that specializes in training and staffing in the mining industry.

Even Gillmann Services admits, however, “Mining sometimes causes climate change, habitat destruction, pollution, soil erosion, and biodiversity loss.”

But, the company adds, environmental impacts can be reduced by using more efficient extraction methods, using cleaner production technologies, investing in renewable energy, and reforestation and rehabilitation programs.

Looking Ahead

Environmental advocates familiar with the impacts from mining doubt the environmental impacts can be adequately mitigated.

Mike Williams Sr., chief of the Akiak Native Community and former vice chairman of the Kuskokwim River Inter-tribal Fish Commission, told ICT that oil production and mining has had a domino effect on pollution in his state.

Air pollution traps heat in the atmosphere, resulting in warmer temperatures that are causing permafrost to thaw. Thawing permafrost is undermining homes and causing riverbank erosion that is silting streams and choking salmon. Uncontrolled mining waste, as well as the processing chemicals used to extract ore, leach pollution into land and water, he said.

“We’re living with the results here,” said Williams, who is also a former vice president of the Alaska State Board of Education and a former board member of the Native American Rights Fund.

“We’re seeing a decline badly of our salmon,” he said. “We’re having continuing restrictions on salmon fishing in the Kuskokwim River and there’s still no fishing in the Yukon River. It’s just terrible, especially for those people on the Yukon who haven’t been able to fish for salmon for three or four years. It’s having a major impact on the anxiety and mental health of our people.”

Action is needed now, he said.

“Vehicle and industrial emissions have affected the speeding of climate change impacts and we know that,” he said. “Coal mining and the North Slope oil industry are doing some of the damage that we hear about. And now gold and copper mining are having some effect on the headwaters and the rivers. We have to look at the impacts of everything — from coal, oil, and mining. Congress must act and require reductions in emissions on every front. And we have to continue to educate the public on these impacts.”

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