Despite backlash over coronavirus timing, Alaska’s investment arm puts $35M into fund for Ambler Road

A map of the proposed Ambler Road project. (Graphic Courtesy of HDR for the Bureau of Land Management.)

The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority board received overwhelming critical public testimony at a board meeting Friday. The backlash didn’t stop the board from putting $35 million toward the controversial Ambler Road project. People who testified questioned the timing of the action, amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

Susan Georgette of Kotzebue summed up the biggest concern from the public: the coronavirus health crisis is no time to put money into the Ambler Road project.  

“The Northwest Arctic Borough is under a shelter-in-place directive right now. The state and country are in the midst of a pandemic and an economic crisis,” Georgette said. “And it’s outrageous, as others have said, that AIDEA is considering these actions right now.” 

AIDEA scheduled the emergency meeting to allow themselves to waive certain regulations on their loans, with the intent of getting money out faster to businesses across the state strained by the coronavirus.

The money would go toward contracting with engineers, lawyers, advisers and others in the Ambler Road’s pre-development phase.

For two hours, Georgette and others testified to the board, almost exclusively against the funding for the project. Many of them took issue with the timing of the meeting. The board scheduled the meeting with three days notice and some felt there wasn’t time for the public to weigh in on the motions. Public testimony per person had also been reduced from the listed three minutes down to two, which Georgette criticized.

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“It does look like AIDEA is using the current crisis to forge ahead with an unpopular project,” Georgette said.

The Ambler Mining District Industrial Access Project, known as the Ambler Road, would stretch from the Dalton Highway to the Ambler Mining District northeast of Kotzebue and cross Gates of the Arctic National Park. The road has drawn criticism from environmental groups who don’t want a new road through a national park. 

Several village governments, including the village of Kotzebue, have also publicly come out against the project.

“Many people here are more concerned with long-term impacts on caribou, fish and water quality than on the shorter-term economic benefits of the road,” Georgette said.

The Army Corps of Engineers released its final Environmental Impact Statement on the road on Friday. They say all three suggested road routes, including one that doesn’t cross through a national park, could impact air and water quality, wildlife migration and erosion in the region. 

Despite the largely negative input from the public, the board ultimately voted unanimously to support the resolution, which categorizes the Ambler Road as an Arctic Infrastructure project, and also adds $35 million to the fund for those projects. The board would have to take further action to actually put the money into the road.

Board president Dana Pruhs said the investment in the Ambler Road is important as the state looks past the current health crisis to the economy post-coronavirus. 

“I respect the public and I really respect what they had to say today,” Pruhs said. “But they have to know that we have to look after the future of the state also.” 

Board members estimate that the project could bring 100 to 200 jobs to the state. 

AIDEA is a public Alaska state corporation tasked with making investments and providing loans to various business interests across the state. 

They also voted to grant the Blood Bank of Alaska a six-month reprieve from paying back loans, though the blood bank had requested nine months and an additional $2.5 million in credit, which was not granted

Wesley Early is a reporter with Alaska Public Media, covering municipal politics and Anchorage life.

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