1. What is an EIS?
The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires that federal agencies consider the environmental impacts of their decisions, consider all reasonable alternatives, and assess environmental consequences. An Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is a document required under NEPA for actions that significantly affect the quality of the human environment.
An EIS includes:
Project Purpose and Need
Issues raised during scoping (internal and external)
Description of the Potentially Affected Environment
2. What is Scoping?
Scoping is the process by which the BLM solicits internal and external input on the issues, impacts, and potential alternatives that will be addressed in the EIS as well as the extent to which those issues and impacts will be analyzed. When the BLM published a Notice of Intent in the Federal Register to prepare the EIS in February 2017, this opened a 90-day public scoping period on the proposed project. The BLM later extended the public scoping period until January 31, 2018.
Scoping will help identify issues and impacts of the proposed alternative.
The purpose of the public scoping process is to determine relevant issues that will influence the scope of the environmental analysis, including alternatives, and to guide the process for developing the EIS. At present, the BLM has identified the following preliminary issues for evaluation in the EIS:
Climate change effects
Social and economic impacts
Impacts to rural and traditional lifestyles
Subsistence use and access
Wildlife and biological resources
Special status species
Fish and aquatic species
Wetlands and riparian
Geology and soils
Demand for gravel resources
Reasonably foreseeable future activities
Scoping will provide input on the Purpose and Need for Federal Action.
The need for BLM action is based on the requirement for the BLM to respond to a right-of-way application for surface transportation access to currently inaccessible, economically valuable mineral deposits in the Ambler Mining District. The purpose of the BLM action is to provide AIDEA with: (1) technically and economically practical and feasible surface transportation access across BLM-managed lands for mining exploration and development in the Ambler Mining District, and (2) authorization to construct, operate, and maintain associated facilities for that access. The BLM must decide whether or not a right-of-way shall be granted and, if so, the terms and conditions that will be included in the right-of-way.
The purpose of the USACE federal action is founded in the NEPA implementation procedures for USACE at 33 CFR 325 Appendix B. Under USACE’s NEPA regulations, USACE independently determines the overall project purpose in its processing of the permit application. USACE’s NEPA regulations generally assume that a need for the proposed activity is demonstrated by the fact that a permit application was submitted. USACE then identifies reasonable alternatives that satisfy the overall project purpose. USACE’s overall project purpose is to provide for surface transportation access to the Ambler Mining District to support mining exploration and operations.
Scoping will be used to shape what alternatives will be studied.
NEPA requires that the BLM consider alternatives to AIDEA’s proposal, and the BLM will evaluate reasonable alternatives in detail in the EIS. Preliminary alternatives for the Ambler Road project will be developed based on the project purpose and need, and on the input received from public and agency comments. The BLM will analyze these alternatives using screening criteria that are drafted after the end of the scoping period. That analysis will help determine which of the alternatives are reasonable and should be carried forward for further analysis in the Draft EIS, and which alternatives should be eliminated from further analysis. The analysis will make clear how and why alternatives were developed, what input was used in their development, and why each alternative was retained or eliminated from further consideration.
Scoping will be used to help identify potential mitigation.
The BLM will identify, analyze, and require mitigation as appropriate, to address the reasonably foreseeable impacts to resources from the proposed project. Mitigation may include avoidance, minimization, rectification, impact reduction or elimination over time, and compensatory mitigation.
3. What agencies are involved?
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is the lead federal agency for the Ambler Road project, and is developing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) under the National Environmental Policy Act to evaluate whether or not to grant a right-of-way for the Ambler Road across BLM lands. The proposed project crosses state lands (61%) and Native corporation lands (15%), but also crosses federal lands (24%) managed by the BLM and the National Park Service. AIDEA has submitted a permit application to request right-of-way across BLM lands.
The project would require federal authorizations from the BLM, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG). The BLM will also evaluate impacts to subsistence uses in accordance with ANILCA Section 810, and lead the evaluation of impacts to cultural resources under the National Historic Preservation Act. The USACE will evaluate the application under Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act, and Section 404 of the Clean Water Act. As a cooperating agency, the USACE will use the BLM EIS as a basis for the USACE permit decision. The USCG has authority for permitting bridges over navigable waters and will use the BLM EIS for its permitting decisions.
4. Why do we need a road to the Ambler Mining District? Aren’t there access roads there already?
There is presently no road access to the Ambler Mining District. The Alaska Industrial and Development Export Authority’s (AIDEA’s) proposal for the Ambler Mining District Industrial Access Project (AMDIAP) is intended to provide for surface transportation from the Dalton Highway to the Ambler Mining District. This access corridor, which would cross the Western (Kobuk River) unit of the Gates of the Arctic National Park, would allow for the exploration and development of mineral deposits in the Ambler Mining District. According to AIDEA, the access corridor is needed to increase job opportunities and encourage the economic growth of the state. Without access, AIDEA has concluded that the mineral assets associated with the Ambler Mining District would remain unused, and AIDEA would not be able to support economic development and increase job opportunities within a region known for high unemployment rates.
5. Why has AIDEA Proposed this Project?
When Congress passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) in 1980, it determined there to be “a need for surface transportation purposes across the Western (Kobuk River) unit of the Gates of the Arctic National Preserve (GANP; from the Ambler Mining District to the Alaska Pipeline Haul Road) and the Secretary shall permit such access in accordance with the provisions of this subsection” (ANILCA Section 201(4)(b)). As Congress recognized when it passed ANILCA, the Ambler Mining District in northwest Alaska is one of the areas of highest mineral potential in Alaska. This area has been explored for decades, but the lack of transportation access has made it challenging to bring these high-value resource areas into production.
AIDEA’s purpose for the AMDIAP is to provide for surface transportation access across the Western (Kobuk River) unit of the GANP from the Dalton Highway to the Ambler Mining District. This access corridor would allow for the exploration and development of mineral deposits in the Ambler Mining District. According to AIDEA, the access corridor is needed to increase job opportunities and encourage the economic growth of the state. Without access, the mineral assets associated with the Ambler Mining District would remain stranded and AIDEA would not be able to support economic development and increase job opportunities within a region known for high unemployment rates.
6. What would the road look like?
The road would be a 32-foot-wide, all-season, gravel, two-lane road with 80-foot embankments and a total of 20 vehicle turnouts. Access to the road would be controlled and primarily limited to mining-related industrial uses, such as trucks hauling mineral exploration and development equipment, supplies, fuel, and ore concentrate. The road would be designed to accommodate large, semi-trailer trucks. Some commercial uses may be allowed under a permit process. There would be no public access. The project would include bridges, material sites, maintenance stations, and related infrastructure and utilities. The roadway corridor is expected to be in operation for up to 50 years. AIDEA proposes that the access road and support facilities would be reclaimed at that time, once material exploration and mine operations in the District are completed, and when the access road is no longer needed. Reclamation would include removal of embankments, culverts, and bridges; the roadway would be regraded to re-establish more natural conditions; and any disturbed soils would be revegetated with native vegetation to reduce visual impacts and the potential for soil erosion and sediment discharge.
7. What lands would be affected?
The road would begin at the Dalton Highway at approximately Milepost 161, and cross BLM-managed lands within the Dalton Highway Utility Corridor for approximately the first 18 miles. The road would then extend across State land, lands privately owned by Alaska Native corporations, and isolated BLM-managed parcels. The proposed road would cross roughly 24 miles of BLM-managed lands in total. In addition, approximately 26 miles of the proposed road would cross lands within the Gates of the Arctic National Preserve, a conservation system unit established by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) section 201(4). This section of ANILCA specifically directs the Secretary of the Interior to authorize the road through the Preserve but does not address other public lands.
8. How much would it cost and how would it be financed?
AIDEA’s cost estimate for construction of the full build-out of the two-lane access road is $350 million; operations and maintenance costs are expected to range from $8 to $10 million per year. AIDEA, as a development finance authority, would develop the access route as a Public-Private Partnership. This means AIDEA funds and bonds would be used in conjunction with private capital for the construction and operation of the Ambler Road.
9. Who would be responsible for maintenance of the Ambler Road?
AIDEA would be responsible for operations and maintenance of the Ambler Road, but may procure those services through third parties. Some of the areas built as material sites may also be developed into maintenance areas to house staff and equipment to operate and maintain the road.
10. What permits and approvals would be required?
The project will require federal authorizations from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which is serving as the lead federal agency for the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), as well additional authorizations from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG). Each agency has received a permit application from AIDEA. The BLM must decide whether to grant a right-of-way across BLM-administered lands. The USACE will evaluate its permit application under Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act, and Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, and will use the BLM EIS as a basis for that permit decision. The USCG has authority for permitting bridges over navigable waters and will also use the BLM EIS for its permitting decisions. The BLM will evaluate potential impacts to subsistence uses in accordance with Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) Section 810, and will evaluate cultural and historic resources in accordance with the National Historic Preservation Act. The Alaska Department of Natural Resources will make land management decisions for right-of-way access across state-managed lands. The full list of required permits and approvals is available in the AMDIAP Corridor SF299 Supplemental Narrative (page 12) on the ePlanning website.
11. What are the different roles of AIDEA, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the State of Alaska?
AIDEA is proposing the Ambler Mining District Industrial Access Project, and would be responsible for its funding. AIDEA funds and bonds would be used, in conjunction with private capital for the construction and operation of the Ambler Road.The BLM is the lead federal agency for preparing the EIS under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to determine whether or not to grant a right-of-way for the Ambler Road across BLM-managed lands. The USACE provides permitting under Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act, and Section 404 of the Clean Water Act and would use the EIS as the basis for its decisions. The USCG provides permitting for constructing bridges over navigable waters, and would also use the EIS as a basis for its decisions. The Alaska Department of Natural Resources makes land management decisions for right-of-way access across state-managed lands.
12. Who would be able to use the Ambler Road? Why is it limited access?
The roadway is designed to support mineral exploration; mine development, construction, and operations; and ore transportation. AIDEA anticipates that there would be about 33 50-ton trucks per day hauling ore concentrate during the peak years of production. Total traffic, including fuel and other supplies, would be up to 80 trucks per day (40 round trips) during production activities. Other permitted traffic at times might include commercial deliveries of goods for local communities or commercial transport for local residents and emergency response authorized through access permits. Only commercially licensed drivers would be allowed on the road.
Although the proposed road would have controlled access, local communities would have the potential to hire commercial transportation providers to deliver fuel or freight to staging areas where the communities could access it, probably in the winter. Alternatively, local residents could instead form their own companies to provide these services.
13. What is the schedule for the EIS?
The Draft EIS is scheduled to be available midsummer 2019 with a 45-day public comment period. The Final EIS is scheduled for completion in late fall/early winter 2019. The schedule will be updated as needed.
14. What are some other requirements and consultation?
The EIS provides a framework that will be used for complying with other environmental laws and required consultation. Below are some of the key, additional environmental procedures.
The BLM will utilize and coordinate the NEPA scoping process to help fulfill the public involvement process under the National Historic Preservation Act, Public Law 89-665, as amended by Public Law 96-515, and as provided in 36 CFR 800.2(d)(3). The BLM will work to identify and evaluate potential impacts to any historical and cultural resources within the proposed project area.
The BLM intends to coordinate the development of the EIS with the National Park Service, which, in accordance with ANILCA section 201(4)(d), is developing a separate environmental and economic analysis (EEA) solely for the purpose of determining the most desirable route for that portion of the proposed road right-of-way that would cross Gates of the Arctic National Preserve. The National Park Service website includes information on the Ambler Access Project EEA.
The BLM will also address potential impacts to subsistence uses as required under ANILCA Section 810 as part of the EIS. If project alternatives “may significantly restrict subsistence uses”, then ANILCA Section 810 hearings will be held in concert with public meetings associated with release of the Draft EIS.
The BLM will consult with affected Federally Recognized Tribes on a government-to-government basis, and with affected Alaska Native corporations, in accordance with Executive Order 13175 and other policies. Native concerns, including impacts on Indian trust assets and potential impacts to cultural resources, will be given appropriate consideration. Federal, State, and local agencies, along with tribes and other stakeholders that may be interested in or affected by the proposed project, are invited to participate in the scoping process and, if eligible, may request or be asked by the BLM to participate in the development of the EIS as cooperating agencies.