A former Interior Department official who abruptly resigned last month personally expedited environmental review for a 211-mile private road project across federal land that would open up a vast new copper, gold and precious metals mining district near a national park in northern Alaska, according to a company seeking to mine there.
Joseph Balash, an Alaskan who until Aug. 30 served as assistant Interior secretary for land and minerals, was the mining industry’s primary Interior contact who was responsible for expediting the Bureau of Land Management’s approval process for the road, said Patrick Donnelly, vice president of Vancouver, B.C.,-based Trilogy Metals, Inc.
The BLM is studying the environmental impact of the proposed 211-mile Ambler Road, which would provide industrial access to a 70 mile-wide belt of mountains containing copper, zinc, gold, molybdenum, and other precious metals. The bureau issued a draft environmental impact statement in August. A public comment period on the proposal ends Oct. 15.
The state-funded road would cross Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve and other federal public lands but would be closed to the public.
‘Really Far Down the Road’
The mining district is extremely remote and has not yet been developed because of lack of infrastructure, Donnelly said.
Trilogy owns the majority of the Ambler mineral belt and is proposing at least two mines for the area, Donnelly said Sept. 4.
“He’s gotten this thing really far down the road,” Donnelly said, referring to Balash. “That helped a lot that he was Alaskan and familiar with the project and pro-development.”
Balash, who was in charge of Interior’s effort to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, left Interior to work for an oil company operating in northern Alaska, according to a Sept. 4 Washington Post report.
“Because of his familiarity with Alaska mineral resources, Joe Balash prioritized and accelerated Interior’s permitting processes for the Ambler Road and other Arctic industrial projects,” said Lois Epstein, Arctic Program Director for The Wilderness Society. “Speeded-up environmental analyses will result in mistakes and oversights, however, and those flaws will be addressed in litigation that likely will stop the projects.”
The Interior Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, which is proposing the Ambler Road project, is “encouraged” by the BLM’s draft environmental review and it may lead to access to a new mining district, said Karsten Rodvik, the authority’s external affairs officer.
Caribou at Risk
Environmental groups say the road would threaten the region’s caribou herd and harm water quality as it crosses thousands of streams between the Dalton Highway north of Fairbanks and the Ambler Mining District south of the national park.
The road construction would disturb the caribou and the road itself would alter caribou migration routes, which Alaska native communities depend on, said Alex Johnson, Alaska program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association.
Johnson said he is concerned that public funds would be used to pay for a private road across public land, but a public road would cause even greater ecological damage because it would open a wide swath of inaccessible Alaskan wilderness to hunting and other possible uses.
“The biggest concern is that this is a Pandora’s box that opens up the Ambler mining district,” Johnson said. “It’s one of the more significant park threats in Alaska.”
Mark Squillace, a natural resources law professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, said that Ambler Road being proposed as a private right of way across public lands is unusual. Federal agencies would normally allow public access so long as it does not interfere with mining operation, he said.
“They still won’t ‘own’ the road as it is on public land but the BLM can and should require the mining company to allow public use of the road, which they can plainly do, although it seems fair to limit access to the mine site itself and any related facilities,” Squillace said.
Donnelly said the road would not likely be approved if it were public because there is too much local opposition to it.
With Balash out, Donnelly said he remains confident that the federal approval process for the road will continue quickly so that Trilogy’s first mine can begin producing in the mid-2020s.
“The change in government in Washington made a big difference,” Donnelly said. “We’ve noticed a material difference in terms of things getting done. When the Democrats were in, they’re not as pro-mining and pro-resource development.”
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(Adds comment from University of Colorado professor)