Alaska in Brief

Biden administration’s pause on Ambler road project gets court approval

By: - May 18, 2022 5:09 pm
Two bull caribou of the Western Arctic Herd swimming across the Kobuk River during fall 2011 migration in Kobuk Valley National Park. The Ambler Access Project, a proposed 211-mile industrial road, would cross habitat used by the herd, which is one of the largest in North America. (Photo by Kyle Joly/National Park Service)

Two bull caribou of the Western Arctic Caribou Herd swimming across the Kobuk River during fall 2011 migration in Kobuk Valley National Park. The Ambler Access Project, a proposed 211-mile industrial road, would cross habitat used by the herd, which is one of the largest in North America. (Photo by Kyle Joly/National Park Service)

A federal judge has granted the Biden administration permission to reconsider a controversial Trump administration-approved road that would cut through the Brooks Range foothills.

In an order issued Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason approved the Department of the Interior’s plan to partially reevaluate the impacts of the proposed 211-mile Ambler Access Project while it keeps permits needed to build the road in suspension.

The proposed road would connect the isolated but copper-rich Ambler Mining District in northwestern Alaska to the state’s existing road system. Without such a road, Ambler mining companies say, it would be impossible to commercially develop any mines there. The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority is the entity seeking to build the road. Vancouver-based Triology Metals Inc. and its partner, South32 of Australia, would be the road users; the companies have formed a joint venture called Ambler Metals.

Gleason, in her order, noted that Interior has not yet concluded that permits approved in 2020 were issued in error, only that there were deficiencies in the analyses that led to those permits.

“The Court finds that remand is appropriate under these circumstances,” her order said.

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The order was issued in two related lawsuits filed by road opponents. One was filed by a coalition of environmental groups, and the other by the Tanana Chiefs Conference and some of its member tribes. 

Interior on Feb. 22 announced its plan to suspend the right-of-way authorizations that are needed for the road to cross federal land. The department and its agencies said in court documents then that there are valid complaints about the way the project’s environmental impacts were examined. In particular, Interior said, there were deficiencies concerning impacts to caribou, on which subsistence hunters depend, and to water bodies and to the fish within them, also important to subsistence users. Additionally, Interior said, there was insufficient consultation with tribal governments during the environmental study process.

Neither the pro-road nor anti-road groups in the debate were satisfied with Interior’s plan of suspension and re-evaluation.

Road opponents have argued in court briefs that the right-of-way approvals should be scrapped entirely and that Interior’s plans would revisit only some of the study deficiencies but leave others unaddressed.

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Road supporters like AIDEA and Ambler Metals have argued that the suspension was unjustified, but that if Interior is to do more environmental review, the court should set deadlines to ensure speedy completion.

“Litigation delays have frustrated AIDEA’s work plans, as well as its retention of contractors, and hiring of equipment and personnel. Nevertheless, AIDEA is moving forward with necessary preconstruction work where possible, consistent with the suspension of the federal (right-of-ways),” AIDEA said in an April 15 motion.

Gleason did not set any deadlines for completion of the new analysis, but she ordered Interior to file status reports every 60 days.

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Yereth Rosen
Yereth Rosen

Yereth Rosen came to Alaska in 1987 to work for the Anchorage Times. She has been reporting on Alaska news ever since, covering stories ranging from oil spills to sled-dog races. She has reported for Reuters, for the Alaska Dispatch News, for Arctic Today and for other organizations. She covers environmental issues, energy, climate change, natural resources, economic and business news, health, science and Arctic concerns -- subjects with a lot of overlap. In her free time, she likes to ski and watch her son's hockey games.

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