There are two major problems with this proposal: the 211 mile access road, and the permanent water contamination likely to occur at the mines.
The road would be over 200 miles long, starting roughly at Prospect Creek along the Dalton Highway and ending somewhere within the Ambler Mining district — most likely near Bornite, north of the village of Kobuk. It would cross Gates of the Arctic National Park — the second largest national park in the United States. As currently studied, it would cross 161 rivers and streams, including the federally designated Kobuk and Alatna Wild and Scenic Rivers. The road would require gravel quarries every 10 miles to provide the material needed to build the road — some of which may contain asbestos, a carcinogen that Alaska recently legalized for use — as well as numerous maintenance stations and camps.
This would not be a narrow and tidy road in the boreal forest with an occasional wooden bridge across a stream, but a massive piece of infrastructure where single span steel bridges support ore trucks rumbling by 24 hours a day.
The rocks within the main deposit of the mining district — the Arctic Deposit near the village of Kobuk — have among the highest risk of Acid Mine Drainage, or AMD, of any type of ore. In many cases, copper mining has severely impacted fish populations as a result of AMD, which doesn’t simply go away over time, and can require millions of dollars to control and contain in perpetuity. As soon as the revenue from the mining company disappears, so do the responsible parties.
It remains to be seen how migrating caribou will react to the fragmentation of their habitat by roads, and whether Kobuk salmon will ever return to spawn if acid drainage becomes problematic, as it has in so many other places. This road needs to be stopped now.
As of January 2017, the road to Ambler proposal has received approximately $26.25 million from the state Capital Budget since 2010 to study the route options, conduct survey work, and begin biological, hydrological, and geotechnical field studies. The funding to do so was approved by the Alaska Legislature and signed into effect by Governor Parnell. In 2012 it became obvious that none of the routes that would access the sea coast would be studied further, and field crews began concentrating only on the road to the Dalton Highway — the Brooks East Corridor.
The road will need an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to be permitted by state and federal authorities. The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority has begun the process, but funds to continue beyond scoping have not been appropriated by the state legislature. An EIS could take several years and cost tens of millions of dollars. When an EIS process begins or is completed, it doesn’t mean that money for construction exists — that decision would need separate legislative approval. As part of the EIS process, agencies are required to gather formal public comments which will help determine if the state will move forward with construction — assuming it can afford to do so when the time comes.
Unlike past public meetings conducted by DOT, NANA, AIDEA and NovaCopper (now Trilogy Metals) to promote the road and mine projects, EIS scoping meetings and a public comment period are mandated by the law and should not include industry presentations promoting mine plans.