News-Miner opinion: The proposed plan to haul ore by truck from Kinross’ Manh Choh mine project near Tetlin to the company’s Fort Knox mill north of Fairbanks beginning in 2024 is stirring a blizzard of questions about everything from highway safety to environmental concerns. Too little is said about the economic boost it would provide.
About 190 huge trucks up to 120 feet long and weighing 80 tons fully loaded would haul ore on public highways from the Manh Choh mine, 10 miles south of Tok and 12 miles west of Tetlin, to the Kinross mill and return in a nearly 500-mile round trip. Those trucks would run 24 hours a day for the mine’s expected four- to five-year lifespan.
Opponents, including residents of rural communities along the haul route along the Alaska, Richardson and Steese highways, wonder whether the ore trucks from the mine could lead to an increasing number of accidents or affect seasonal tourism, wildlife and other traffic. Some commenters, former Gov. Frank Murkowski among them, even have suggested a rail link to ease potential problems.
Alaska has acquired a $10 million equity interest in the Manh Choh mine, with its estimated 1 million ounces of relatively high-grade gold and 4 million ounces of silver, and it should come as no surprise the project’s most vocal supporters include the nearby Tanana Athabaskan village of Tetlin, which boasts 125 year-round residents and 300 members.
Census data shows Tetlin’s per capita income is about $11,000 a year, with a median annual household income of about one-third of Alaska’s $77,000 median annual household income. The predominant lifestyle in Tetlin is subsistence. The mine would provide a much-needed boost in the form of royalties and jobs. Kinross Alaska says the Manh Choh mine is expected to create 250 to 300 construction jobs initially and create 400-600 jobs when operational.
“The project will leave behind major infrastructure and will transfer skills to other projects in Alaska,” Michael Sam, the tribe’s elected chief, told lawmakers earlier this month. “It will be able to fund services for our community such as public health, education and transportation. It will allow us to continue to live our traditional way of life.”
Just this past week, the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities said it is hiring an independent contractor to review the plan and the Environmental Protection Agency noted concerns in a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers. However, the project requires water quality certification from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, and Kinross includes a mitigation plan heavy on reclamation at the mine site.
As for a railroad: It is a great idea. Unfortunately, by the time mine proponents — or anybody else for that matter — could manage to navigate the quagmire of lawsuits, assessments, government interference and lawyers’ make-work required for a project of any size nowadays, railroads very well could be relegated to museums before work could begin on the mine.
Should the Manh Choh project be shelved because of opposition? No, but perhaps many of the concerns and fears about it could be assuaged by more interaction between Kinross and residents. If ore haulers obey the laws and operate safely, with even a modicum of common sense, there should be few problems.
Given the Manh Choh mine’s promised economic boost for Tetlin, the Interior and all of Alaska, we join those who support the project — along with its trucking proposal — as long as it is carried out in an environmentally sound and safe manner.