Scrutiny of plan to truck mine ore across Interior Alaska grows

  • The Richardson Highway bridge over the Tanana River near Delta Junction is seen on May 14, 2020. Toronto-based Kinross Gold Corp. plans to truck mine ore 248 miles from a gold deposit near the Village of Tetlin to the Fort Knox mine north of Fairbanks, a route which includes a large section of the Richardson Highway. (Marc Lester / ADN)

A plan announced two years ago to haul large quantities of mine ore nearly 250 miles to the Fort Knox gold mine via a near-continuous procession of trucks has gained organized opposition in recent months and state officials are promising a closer look.

When Toronto-based Kinross Gold Corp. paid $93.7 million for a majority stake in what was then dubbed the Peak Gold project, located near Tok on land owned by Native Village of Tetlin, the company said in a Sept. 2020 statement announcing the deal that it planned to truck ore from a proposed open-pit gold mine to its mill at Fort Knox, north of Fairbanks.

There was little public discussion about the large mining company’s plans for about a year until Kinross started holding community meetings to talk about their project, according to retired Fairbanks-area state Sen. Gary Wilken, who is among those leading Advocates for Safe Alaska Highways, the group formed last year solely to stop Kinross’ trucks before they start.

“We’re a very diverse group and we’re focused on not letting our highways become mining haul roads, and that’s as simple as it can be because that’s where it’s headed,” Wilken said in an interview. “We’re not going to stop mining in our state; we’re not going to fix global warming and we’re not going to cure baldness. This is about safety.”

Kinross Alaska representatives have said the ore trucking concept is still being refined but they expect between two and four round trips per hour between the Fort Knox and the mine site along parts of the Alaska, Richardson and Steese highways.

Kinross has since renamed the 1-million-ounce gold prospect and now calls it the Manh Choh project.

As currently envisioned, the Manh Choh project would be active for up to 5 years with ore production tentatively set to start in 2024.

The project would generate nearly 300 jobs during construction and another 400-600 direct jobs during operation, Kinross Alaska Vice President and General Manager Jeremy Brans told House lawmakers during a hearing last month.

It’s for that reason the Tetlin Village Council is backing Kinross’ plans.

Tetlin Village Chief Michael Sam said during the legislative hearing that the gold prospect has provided jobs for Tetlin residents since exploration began in the early 2000s, though safety along the trucking route is a concern of his as well.

“Kinross has proven their safety track record and I strongly believe they are going to operate safely,” Sam said.

The current range in truck activity is due to remaining unknowns in the final size of the operation, which will be informed by future infill drilling of the deposit, Brans said. Kinross is also in the midst of a feasibility study of Manh Choh to determine the best path forward for the company.

He stressed during the joint meeting of the House Resources and Transportation committees that trucking the mine ore is the only financially viable way to develop Manh Choh, also noting the project would help protect the 700-plus jobs at the Fort Knox mine already.

“Safety is the driving value for Kinross. We would not be doing this if we did not believe we could do it safely,” Brans said.

He noted that 18 new passing lanes are scheduled for installation along the 248-mile route before Kinross plans to start the trucking operation, which does not require any special permits or authorizations from the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, he added — a claim verified by DOT officials.

“We want to be as ordinary as possible,” he said.

Brans also highlighted that trucking the ore to an existing mill and other facilities greatly reduces the footprint and environmental impact of Manh Choh.

Wilken said he personally doesn’t argue with the economic benefits of Fort Knox or the need in Eastern Alaska for the potential jobs at Manh Choh. However, the safety problems he and other Advocates for Safe Alaska Highways volunteers see far outweigh the economic potential of the project.

He is quick to point out that Kinross’ numbers of a handful of trucks going each way each hour extrapolates out to potentially 192 one-way trips per day, or upwards of 70,000 trips per year.

“You have an 80-ton truck every five miles. You’re going to drive to Delta and pass 20 ore trucks spring, summer, winter, fall.” Wilken said, adding there are 188 school bus stops along the route.

Currently a member of the Interior Gas Utility Board of Directors, Wilken said the handful of LNG trucks that run the Parks Highway each day to supply the Fairbanks-area utility with gas produced from Cook Inlet just doesn’t compare to volume of trucks Kinross would employ. He did acknowledge, though, that transportation safety experts he spoke to about Kinross' plan have turned him against the tandem-rigged LNG “pup” trailers he previously advocated for to make the natural gas transport operation more economic and reduce the final cost to the utility’s ratepayers.

Wilken insisted no level of ore hauling by Kinross is acceptable because "one truck leads to two." He added that it's likley Kinross will operate Manh Choh for longer than the initial five-year plan because nearly every large mine grows as more is learned about the deposit and the surrounding area.

Kinross plans to use 80-ton gross weight tractor-trailers with tandem trailers for an entire rig that will likely be between 95 and 120 feet depending on the final configuration. The trucks, which will be operated by an in-state contractor, according to Brans, will be built specifically for the Interior Alaska route. That means, among other things, they will not sacrifice safety for economy of scale, he said, because more weight means more axles and more opportunities to install corresponding braking capacity.

“A longer truck, if engineered correctly, — and all of these will be purpose-built — actually does not make a trade-off between weight and breaking power and that’s very key when it comes to bus stops,” Brans said.

He characterized the ore trucks as increasing traffic by less than 1% in Fairbanks and up to 20% in outlying areas if the company’s most aggressive plans are enacted.

Wilken said Gov. Mike Dunleavy held an informal stakeholder meeting in Juneau shortly after the March 8 legislative hearing that he felt was very productive. It ended with state officials granting Advocates for Safe Alaska Highways’ request for a formal, independent analysis of Kinross’ plan.

“We had reached the point, very clearly, where we would stand up and say ‘That’s not safe,’ and Kinross would stand up and say ‘No, that’s safe,” Wilken described. “We needed someone to help us in the middle.”

DOT officials subsequently announced a new transportation advisory committee on March 25 to examine the plan in response to concerns from the public. The committee will be comprised of officials form local school districts, state agencies, the Federal Highway Administration, first responder personnel, and project backers and opponents, according to DOT.

The final roster is still being shaped, but Wilken said his group will have a seat on the committee.

DOT Northern Region spokeswoman Danielle Tessen said the agency will hire an independent consultant to analyze the project corridor and answer the committee’s questions. She highlighted that it’s a public involvement process DOT officials are well-versed in from the countless other projects the department leads.

“We believe in the practice of sharing information,” Tessen said, adding that the agency has put together a public input database — things DOT is not required to do in this instance.

Agency officials hope to hold the fist meeting in April, she said.

Tessen also acknowledged that as far as DOT's regulating, Kinross can largely do what it wants regardless of what the committee or agency recommends.

“We don’t have the authority to stop them if they have legal loads,” she said.

Kinross spokeswoman Anna Atchison wrote in an email that the company sees the committee as another opportunity for continued community input and dialogue about the Manh Choh project.

"While we naturally seek out and welcome every opportunity for collaboration with stakeholders, we encourage the state to hold all commercial users to the same standard," Atchison wrote.

Dunleavy said in a statement from his office that the advisory committee will develop a plan to allow for safe operation of the project.

Environmental Protection Agency officials added another layer to the issue earlier this year, as well. EPA Region 10 officials wrote in February comments to the Army Corps of Engineers over Kinross’ wetlands fill permit application that the project could impact wetlands and waters along the trucking corridor in addition to the mine site, noting the possibility of more than 70,000 truck trips per year in the Tanana and Tok river drainages. The 5.2 acres of wetlands Kinross believes it will disturb at the mine site otherwise is a small enough disturbance that it wouldn’t necessarily require a full-scale National Environmental Policy Act review.

“We are encouraged that we’re now going to get some unbiased, objective, critical thought to this process,” Wilken said.

Correction: An original version of this story misspelled the name of the project. It has been corrected to Manh Choh.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

04/08/2022 - 4:51pm