Fort Knox

The historic Fairbanks mining district has yielded gold-producing mines that include the Fort Knox gold mine, shown in this May 2017 aerial image. Avidian Gold has permission to explore for gold at the Amanita mine, as well as for other minerals. (See map of sites below.)

A second exploration project in the Fairbanks historic mining district faces opposition from residents who live near the drilling site.

Avidian Gold Alaska received approval Sept. 9 from the Division of Mining, Land and Water at the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for exploration drilling of up to 60 bore holes on state-managed lands.

The Nevada company, with headquarters in Canada, has state authorization in Alaska to conduct exploratory drilling near Ruby and Rex creeks.

“It is inherently concerning that drilling will be followed by mining,” said neighbor Tom Duncan. “That is the whole reason for the exploration, to determine the viability of future mining. They are going to come in with minimal equipment for the exploration. Everyone is concerned with what will follow.”

Added Darla Theisen, a 20-year resident: “We can’t even pose the right questions about plans for the project, because we don’t have enough information about it. We have asked for an extension on the public comment period.”

Hard-rock exploration

Avidian is primarily looking for gold, but the leases and claims allow for other precious and base metals. The new approval will continue a plan of operations that involves hard-rock exploration and reclamation on claims that date back to the 1980s, the DNR said.

The Amanita mining project is south of the Gilmore Trail Road and north of Amanita Road. It is north of Chena Hot Springs Road.

Amanita is the second exploratory drilling project in the historic Fairbanks mining district to draw recent concern from neighbors.

“Exploration activities are merely that, exploration activities. It is a long distance between drilling exploration holes and ever opening a producing mine,” said Dan Saddler, communications director at DNR. “It doesn’t happen very often.”

Complaints about gold exploration proposed for the Ester Dome area led developer Felix Gold Alaska to pause plans on more than 3,000 acres of a 10,200-acre site.

Now neighbors near the Amanita project have organized against Avidian Gold’s exploration activities. (Avidian Gold Alaska is separate and unrelated to Felix Gold Alaska, which is headquartered in Australia.)

Residents have emailed letters to DNR’s Division of Mining, Land and Water.

Theisen, a neighbor who co-chairs the nearby Audubon Reidel Nature Reserve, said she was blindsided by the project’s approval last month. The Audubon nature reserve appears to be within two miles from the project, Theisen said.

“The state has not been a model of transparency,” said Theisen, who has visited the DNR offices in Fairbanks seeking information.

The state provided a courtesy public comment period that started Sept. 28 and ends at 5 p.m. Oct. 13, Alaska time. DNR may amend its decision based on public comments, Saddler said.

Saddler said that a courtesy public notice is “the informal term” by the Division of Mining, Land and Water when no public notice is required by law but provided anyway.

“This is not new,” Saddler said, referring to the project. “If people are saying this has been sprung on them, the reality is that it has been underway for five years now, at least.”

Tom Duncan, a neighbor, said he believes that the courtesy public notice period was insufficient.

“Currently, access to state information on mineral projects is very minimal and exclusive,” said Duncan, who first learned about the project from neighbors. “This information is not readily or easily available to the public, in my opinion.”

Public notices are posted to the DNR website and available through an email list-serv.

Saddler said in an email that “notification of these hard rock exploration permit applications or a decision to issue an authorization is not required by law when the proposed activity does not include a disposal of a state interest and the authorization is revocable by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).”

“Mining claims are a disposal provided for in the Alaska Constitution,” he continued. “Some of those claims staked in the 1980s were converted last year to an upland mining lease [with] 30 days’ public notice for which was provided in newspapers, as well as the online public notice system,” he said.

DNR provided a courtesy public notice in 2016 of the proposed mineral exploration, which means “it notified the public via the state online public notice system and accepted public comment, though such action was not required by law,” Saddler said.

Theisen said she visited the DNR office in Fairbanks to check on the status of the Amanita project. It was at that point, she learned about the project approval in September.

Theisen said that she had no prior notice.

“We’re probably less than a mile from the site,” Theisen said about the proximity of her house to the project. “We don’t know the acreage. There is not a clear map of the site.”

'Disturbance of three acres'

For 2021, Avidian has proposed an exploration area “disturbance of three acres, located within [the] larger project property boundaries,” Saddler said, noting that the mineral developer has not conducted any work this year.

The plan of operations permit issued by the state is effective from 2021-2025. A total of nine drill pads were constructed in a previous program conducted in 2020.

Now Avidian plans to drill up to 60 holes, to a depth of 1,300 feet, with a combined length of 15 miles, according to the company’s multi-year proposal approved by DNR.

Under the terms for renewal, exploration activities may not “disturb” more than five acres per year, in each of the five years covered by the plan.

Saddler said the term “disturbance” covers drilling, trenching, drill pad and related activities. “It is reasonable that 60 exploration holes, totaling 24,000 linear meters [15 miles], could be drilled on no more than five acres each year, over five years.”

Saddler said Avidian Gold Alaska has been conducting exploration at the Amanita project since 2016 under a previous plan of operations approved by DNR.

“The 2021-2025 application and approval does not significantly deviate from the scope of the prior authorized activities,” he said.

But neighbors say they are worried about the impact on home values as well as the safety and welfare of people who live nearby.

Drill sites appear to be off recreational trails and not large enough to support a drill rig, according to residents. Other sites are right next to Ruby Creek. Some residents expressed concerns about the chemical additives used in drilling.

DNR responded that the developer is using a drill rig and small-scale excavator. Spur access will be built where there is no trail. Drilling water is recycled through a closed system on the drill rig, according to DNR.

Neighbors said it is difficult to determine the exact location of drill sites with the maps and supporting materials provided.

In an Oct. 11 letter to the DNR, Duncan wrote that “the map and geographical features are not legible. You can’t read the coordinates, the names of the creeks or the streets around it.”

None of the documents show the proximity of homeowner properties to the Amanita project.

Another concern is the impact on water tables and drinking water wells when the mineral developer begins drawing water from Ruby Creek during the exploration process, neighbors said.

“The water comes off the hills to go into the water table, which people use for their wells,” Duncan said. “I don’t think people are aware of Avidian pulling water from Ruby Creek.”

Contact Linda F. Hersey at 907-459-7575 or at lhersey@newsminer.com. Follow her at twitter.com/FDNMpolitics.

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