A plan announced two years ago to transport large quantities of mining ore nearly 250 miles to the Fort Knox gold mine via a near-continuous procession of trucks has drawn organized opposition in recent months and officials of the state promise to be examined more closely.
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 September 2020 statement announcing the deal that it planned to truck ore from a proposed open-pit gold mine to its Fort Knox plant, north of Fairbanks.
There was little public discussion of the big mining company’s plans for about a year until Kinross began hosting community meetings to talk about its project, according to the retired Fairbanks state senator. , Gary Wilken, one of Alaska’s leading highway safety advocates. the group formed last year just to stop Kinross trucks before they started.
“We’re a very diverse group and we try hard not to let our highways become mining haul roads, and it’s as easy as it gets because that’s where it’s headed,” Wilken said in an interview. . “We are not going to stop mining in our state; we’re not going to fix global warming and we’re not going to cure baldness. It’s a matter of security.
Kinross Alaska representatives said the ore trucking concept is still being refined, but they expect between two and four round trips per hour between 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 Man Choh Project.
As currently envisioned, the Man Choh Project would be active for up to 5 years, with ore production expected to begin in 2024.
The project would generate nearly 300 jobs during construction and another 400 to 600 direct jobs during operations, Kinross Alaska Vice President and General Manager Jeremy Brans told House lawmakers during a hearing last month. last.
It is for this reason that Tetlin Village Council supports Kinross’ plans.
Tetlin Village Chief Michael Sam told the legislative hearing that the gold prospect has provided jobs for Tetlin residents since exploration began in the early 2000s, although security le along the trucking route is also a concern for him.
“Kinross has a proven track record of security and I’m confident they will operate safely,” Sam said.
The current range in truck activity is due to remaining unknowns about 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 Man Choh feasibility study to determine the best way forward for the business.
He stressed at the joint meeting of the House Resources and Transportation Committees that trucking ore from the mine is the only financially viable way to develop Man Choh, also noting that the project would already help protect more than 700 jobs at the Fort Knox mine.
“Safety is the driving value of Kinross. We wouldn’t do this if we didn’t feel we could do it safely,” Brans said.
He noted that 18 new passing lanes are planned for installation along the 248-mile route before Kinross plans to start the trucking operation, which does not require any permits or special permissions from the Department of Transport and Alaska public facilities, he added — a claim verified by DOT officials.
“We want to be as ordinary as possible,” he said.
Brans also pointed out that transporting the ore by truck to an existing plant and other facilities significantly reduces Man Choh’s footprint and environmental impact.
Wilken said he personally does not dispute the economic benefits of Fort Knox or the need in eastern Alaska for potential jobs at Man Choh. However, the safety issues 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’s count of a handful of trucks going each way every hour extrapolates to potentially 192 one-way trips a day, or more than 70,000 trips a year.
“You have an 80 ton truck every five miles. You will drive to Delta and pass 20 ore trucks spring, summer, winter, fall. Wilken said, adding that there are 188 school bus stops along the route.
Currently a board member of Interior Gas Utility, Wilken said the handful of LNG trucks that travel the Parks Highway every day to supply the Fairbanks-area utility with gas produced from Cook Inlet doesn’t compare. just not the volume of trucks that Kinross would do. to employ. He acknowledged, however, that the transportation safety experts he told about Kinross’ plan turned him against the tandem-rigged LNG trailers he had previously advocated for making the natural gas transportation operation more economic and reduce the final cost for the taxpayers of the public service.
Wilken insisted that no level of ore transport by Kinross is acceptable because “one truck brings two”. He added that Kinross is likely to operate Man Choh for longer than the original five-year plan, as almost all major mines are developed as more is learned about the deposit and the surrounding region.
Kinross plans to use 80-ton gross weight semi-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 a state contractor, according to Brans, will be built specifically for the Alaska Interior Highway. This means, among other things, that they will not sacrifice safety for economies of scale, he said, because more weight means more axles and more possibilities to install corresponding braking capacity.
“A longer truck, if designed correctly – and all will be built for this purpose – doesn’t actually compromise between weight and stopping power and that’s very important when it comes to stopping buses,” Brans said.
He characterized 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 adopted.
Wilken said Gov. Mike Dunleavy held an informal stakeholder meeting in Juneau shortly after the March 8 legislative hearing, which he found to be 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 stood up and said ‘It’s not sure’ and Kinross stood up and said ‘No it’s sure,'” Wilken described. one to help us in the middle.”
DOT officials later announced a new Transportation Advisory Committee on March 25 to review the plan in response to public concerns. The committee will be made up of officials from local school districts, state agencies, the Federal Highway Administration, first responder personnel, and supporters and opponents of the project, according to the DOT.
The final slate is still being worked on, but Wilken said his group will sit on the committee.
DOT Northern Region spokeswoman Danielle Tessen said the agency would hire an independent consultant to analyze the project corridor and answer questions from the committee. She pointed out that this is a process of public involvement that DOT officials are familiar with from the countless other projects run by the department.
“We believe in the practice of sharing information,” Tessen said, adding that the agency has set up a public entry database — things the DOT is not required to do in this case. .
Agency officials hope to hold the first meeting in April, she said.
Tessen also acknowledged that when it comes to DOT regulations, Kinross can largely do whatever it wants, regardless of what the committee or agency recommends.
“We don’t have the power to arrest them if they have legal charges,” she said.
Kinross spokeswoman Anna Atchison wrote in an email that the company sees the committee as another opportunity to continue community input and dialogue about the Man Choh Project.
“While we naturally seek and welcome all opportunities for collaboration with stakeholders, we encourage the state to keep all commercial users on the same level,” Atchison wrote.
Dunleavy said in a statement from his office that the advisory committee will develop a plan to enable safe operation of the project.
Environmental Protection Agency officials also added another layer to the problem earlier this year. EPA Region 10 officials wrote to the Army Corps of Engineers in February about the Kinross Wetland Fill Permit application that the project could impact wetlands and waters along the trucking corridor in addition to the mine site, noting the potential for over 70,000 truck trips per year within the Tanana and Tok River watersheds. The 5.2 acres of wetlands that Kinross believes will be disturbed at the mine site is otherwise a small enough disturbance not to necessarily require a full-scale revision of the National Environmental Policy Act.
“We are encouraged that we will now have an unbiased, objective and critical reflection on this process,” Wilken said.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].