January 29, 2018
Greg Dudgeon, Superintendent
Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve
4175 Geist Rd
Fairbanks AK 99709
Subject: Ambler Mining Industrial Access Project, Environmental and Economic Impact Analysis (EEA)
Dear Superintendent Dudgeon:
I am writing to you on behalf of over 1,400 members of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks (Coalition), a non-profit organization composed entirely of retired, former, or current employees of the National Park Service (NPS). The Coalition studies, educates, speaks, and acts for the preservation of America’s National Park System. As a group, we collectively represent more than 35,000 years of experience managing and protecting America’s most precious and important natural and historic places. We count among our membership former employees of Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve (GAAR).
We are concerned about the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA) consolidated SF-299 Right-of-Way (ROW) application to the NPS, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), U.S. Coast Guard, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the Ambler Mining District Industrial Access Project. The application requests the issuance of permits related to the proposed construction and operation of a 211-mile long, all-season, controlled-access industrial road connecting the Ambler Mining District with the Dalton Highway. Our comments below seek to address the adequacy of the application, description of the environment, identification of alternatives, scope of the review, and proposed terms and conditions.
BACKGROUND AND RECOMMENDATIONS
The ROW permit application, if approved, would enable deep pit mining in the headwaters of the Kobuk River in the Ambler Mineral Belt, a district located at the edge of the boundaries of four units of the National Park System. Although the applicable law governing this ROW broadly provides for “access,” this ROW application would authorize construction of a gravel road – the type of access that most threatens the distinctive subsistence way of life and wilderness values in this country. This “road” would be constructed and operated in three phases: First, a “pioneer” gravel path; then a one-lane gravel road; and, at some point, as a two-lane facility located directly on the boundary of the Gates of the Arctic Wilderness, considered by many as the most fully realized and remote designated wilderness in the National Park System.
The NPS should require that the ROW permit be limited solely to access directly related to mining of the Ambler mineral belt. Such limits would comply with the clear intention of the law and legislative history.
If other uses of the ROW are contemplated, including public access, we urge that the NPS require, consistent with Senate Report 96-413 p.147, that “a transportation plan for the region which would include the right-of-way” be developed by the State of Alaska and the respective Secretaries along with an environmental and economic analysis of its impacts before any such uses are considered. This should be presented and evaluated in a separate and subsequent ROW application.
The applicable law authorizing the Secretary of the Interior to issue a permit for a ROW is §201(4) of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA ). However, that provision revokes no other law or policy governing NPS management responsibility and, in fact, specifically restricts the scope of this EEA “solely” to the question of the ROW. The law in no way waives other review, other law or policy, other than § 102(2)(C) of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
In short, the law is clear that – other than providing a very limited permission for mining access across the Gates of the Arctic National Preserve and the Kobuk National Wild River for surface access between “the Ambler Mining District” and “the Alaska Pipeline Haul Road” – no other applicable laws or policies may be relaxed when evaluating its issuance.
It appears to us that BLM has identified only a single route, one that creates authorized access directly adjacent to the Gates of the Arctic Wilderness boundary. This is at best pre-decisional and at worst irresponsible. NPS should require that multiple routes, and a no-action alternative, be considered and evaluated as part of the BLM EIS, thus providing a range of alternative routes across the Kobuk unit to be identified and evaluated by the NPS. NPS should advocate for the elimination of a second crossing of the National Park and National Wilderness boundary on the eastern, or Koyukuk, portion of the park. We urge every effort be made to avoid crossing the Koyukuk River into the Gates of the Arctic National Park. There is nothing in the § 201(4) process envisioning the ROW that requires crossing into the Koyukuk, and the NPS should stoutly oppose this proposed violation of the integrity of the park boundaries.
The NPS has a primary duty to determine the route that will “result in fewer or less severe adverse impacts upon the Preserve” However, the NPS appears to have accepted without objection the BLM decision to consider the applicant’s identified routes.
As submitted, the application appears to propose that BLM and the NPS out-source their management responsibilities to a state financing corporation. The applicant is a state entity (AIDEA) whose primary role is financing and underwriting the road. The law clearly intends that the applicant will be the operator of the road and mine. Direct management and oversight of the ROW by BLM and NPS is also essential public policy if the project is to be in compliance with the high bar provided by law. NPS managers must be able to deal directly with the people building this road and driving trucks on it to assure the least possible impacts to the Preserve. AIDEA asserts that its experience managing the Red Dog road is sufficient, and would qualify it to manage such an enormous task. We don’t believe that such a declaration is sufficient.
The comparatively limited and minimal requirements of the Red Dog project are in no way comparable to this Ambler Industrial Road as proposed. Red Dog did not enable a vast mineral enterprise in the watershed of one of the most valuable Arctic fisheries in the United States, the Kobuk River. It did not bisect the largest migrating herd of mammals in the United States, the wolf and caribou migrations of the Western Arctic Caribou Herd, which are the largest such migrations still surviving in the United States.
We might add that the Environmental Protection Agency recently was forced to intervene in the Red Dog mining operations to prevent continued, excessive polluting of Alaskan waters by Red Dog operators.
By restricting the use of right of way to the mining company operators, the congressional purpose of access only for mineral purposes is achieved. History should guide this decision, for the State of Alaska failed with the Dalton Highway to keep its commitment to restrict use to industry-only use, and opened this route to public driving. The potential impact of such public access on an Ambler road would be far more destructive. The ROW can be assigned to the mineral company, or as was the case with Alyeska to a consortium of mineral companies. This is clearly most consistent with the intent of ANILCA § 201(4)(b) and (c), envisioning the operator as the applicant. It would enable proper protection of Preserve and subsistence resources, and the distinctive subsistence way of life as the law envisions.
We suggest, as well, that NPS should require that consideration of alternate modes of travel, particularly rail that might result in less severe impacts on the Preserve, be developed as part of the BLM environmental impact statement (EIS).
This ROW will obviously result in the mining and transport of highly toxic materials associated with open pit mining and copper-lead-zinc ore in the headwaters of a wilderness river, the Kobuk. Appropriate evaluation and assessment must include the potential impact of spills and runoff on the Preserve and rivers. Standards for mitigation and emergency response for these impacts should be identified and described in detail, including those even more rigorous than the typical ‘best available technology’ standard. ANILCA does not authorize loss of environmental quality even as the Law does provide limited permission for mining access.
We urge that the impacts of each of the three stages of road development should be fully evaluated at the outset. Impacts of each phase much be evaluated before such further development is authorized, or completely at the outset.
The applicant presents two possible road routes through Gates of the Arctic National Preserve; however, aspects of the proposed ROW routes across the Kobuk River are problematic. The northern route runs dangerously near the Gates of the Arctic Wilderness boundary and the Walker Lake, one of the largest lakes in Wilderness in the entire National Park System. The northern route, as proposed, would violate the purposes of ANILCA § 201(4), including the opportunity to “experience solitude,” the purpose of “wilderness recreation,” and “maintain(ing) the wild and undeveloped character” of the Park and Wilderness. Industrial access across the Preserve this close to the Walker Lake outflow area and the Park and Wilderness boundary would constitute impairment under the National Park Service Organic Act. An alternative route between the two proposed routes should be considered; and another route along the ridge line south of the Kobuk River might also be added and evaluated.
Although NEPA is waived “solely” for the ROW consideration, §106 of the National Historic Preservation Act is not waived; and full compliance with this key provision of the Act remains a requirement. The upper Kobuk River valley is of world-wide historical and archaeological significance. It is a cultural landscape with demonstrated human activity and cultural continuity dating back 10,000 years. A §106 review will not only assist route decisions, but will also inform the mining and transportation operators of the resources they must consider throughout their construction and management activities. Such evaluation will also assure formal opportunities for local people to engage with this process.
Equally, we believe that a thorough ANILCA Section 810 subsistence analysis and finding is required as part of the evaluation of this application.
TERMS AND CONDITIONS
We recommend that terms and conditions of the permit for a ROW include the following:
- Provide, consistent with the law, a permit for a ROW only.
- Provide that the ROW is non-transferrable without approval of the NPS and BLM.
- Require an annual performance plan and report among the terms and conditions.
- Terms and condition of the ROW permit will need to include a requirement for no use of the roadway, especially by ore trucks, during the caribou and wolf migrations.
- The NPS should require that a ROW permit be issued for a specific term commensurate with the anticipated duration of viable mining operations
- Limit the terms of the ROW permit to access directly related to mining of the Ambler mineral belt.
- Provide that all management and compliance costs to the NPS be paid by the ROW permit holder.
- Prior to issuing the ROW permit, develop and approve a bonding and escrow system to assure that all costs are guaranteed. Such a system may also eliminate the financial need for the chaos of a pay-as-you-go “pioneer road.”
- Provide a complete program in advance of issuing the ROW permit for full compliance with §1107, particularly for subsection (a)(2) the requires the “restoration, revegetation, and curtailment of erosion of the surface of the land.” Restoration in Arctic Alaska is difficult, and requires planning, resources, and professionalism. To verify that this program can in fact lead to the complete removal, restoration, and revegetation of the ROW, the program needs to be peer-reviewed and certified by an independent group. The escrow and bonding program, called for above, shall include in advance all costs necessary to implement this plan to be fully compliant with §1107. .
- NPS needs to develop a plan that clearly requires restoration and includes the standards of what constitutes sufficient dismantlement, restoration and reclamation of the road corridor before approving the ROW. There would need to be a cost estimate provided by AIDEA and approved by the NPS and BLM.
- A Restoration Fund in Escrow needs to be required and created. The costs for restoration must be included in the tolls and retained in escrow. The ROW permit holder should be required to maintain those funds in an altogether separate escrow account so money would be available at the time restoration occurs.
- The applicant is proposing a phased development of road access, beginning with minimal road construction (a “pioneer road”), then an improved one lane road, and lastly a two lane road. It should be a built-in assumption of the terms and conditions for any issued ROW that the proposed two lane road will ultimately be built, and the terms and conditions of the ROW must require the holder to do comprehensive mitigation from the beginning phase.
- Provide that if the mode of transportation authorized is not built within a set period of years of issuance of any ROW permit, the permit shall be reviewed and either terminated or an updated set of terms and conditions reflecting all new information and technologies is required.
- Prior to issuing the permit, develop, review and approve a joint operation plan in coordination with the BLM, coordinating work and responsibility so that all terms and conditions, mitigations and ameliorations in this process are fully complied with. These should include reliable assurances that no public access from the Dalton Highway is permitted.
- The project as proposed states there will be no hunting by project employees so as not to compete with local subsistence uses and sport hunters. Include this provision in the Terms and Conditions.
- Provide for company disciplinary review for any employee violating these standards, and include in the company’s disciplinary review committees trained representatives of the local rural residents so that complete transparency while adhering to necessary confidentiality are maintained.
- Provide that no access be permitted during periods of caribou and wolf migrations through and across the approved road. This triggering mechanism for closures, upon notice by NPS or U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service authorities, should be incorporated into the Annual Performance Plan.
- Provide that the Preserve may not be used for gravel or water sources.
- Allow no stopping in the Preserve, other than for emergencies.
- Allow no airstrips or camps.
- Allow no fuel storage.
- Allow no refuse areas.
- Law enforcement authority needs to be stated explicitly and acknowledged in the Terms and Conditions, and enforced in the Annual Performance Plan.
Thank you for your consideration of our comments and recommendations on this ROW application. Action on this proposal will have serious and log-term implications for the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, Kobuk Valley National Park, the Noatak National Preserve, and indeed the people and character of the entire region. Extra care and deliberation given to decisions regarding this ROW will have substantial and significant impact – FOREVER – on the future of this very special place.