Niblack developers are ramping up their summer drilling program this month. They’re trying to better define ore deposits containing gold, silver, copper and zinc.
“We’ll have a helicopter and a couple drill rigs on site within the next couple weeks for a program that will take us through mid-September or so,” says Patrick Smith, president and CEO of Heatherdale Resources.
The Vancouver, British Columbia, based company is developing the property on the south end of Prince of Wales Island, west of Ketchikan.
Niblack is on the water, but miles from the island’s extensive road system.
Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski wants to change that. She’s asked the Forest Service to allow construction of a road extension to the mine.
“It really is I think first and foremost to ensure that those who want jobs and opportunities there are able to access them. And if you’ve got a road to help facilitate that, it just makes it that much easier,” Murkowski says.
Her legislation would authorize a route through what’s called an inventoried roadless area of the Tongass National Forest. Such areas have strict limits on construction and development.
Smith of Heatherdale Resources says support from Murkowski and bill cosponsor Mark Begich should help.
“We would not likely not have that road used for any kind of ore transport. We would either mill the ore on site or we might ship the ore by water. So the road that we’re talking about would mostly be used for crews coming in and out to the job site,” he says.
A Murkowski press release suggests a longer road could also help the Bokan Mountain rare earth elements mine. That’s being explored farther south on Prince of Wales Island.
But the senator says the route is a long-term goal not addressed by her legislation.
“We recognize that regardless of where you are, access is always an issue. So initially, it’s access to Niblack and that’s where the focus is right now,” she says.
Building in a roadless area always raises concerns among environmental activists.
Southeast Alaska Conservation Council Mining Coordinator Guy Archibald says there’s not enough information yet to determine its impacts.
“Building roads on Prince of Wales can be problematic. An example is the Coffman Cove Road, where they ran into a lot of acid-generating rock when they built the road,” he says.
He says SEACC does like the legislation’s local-hire focus. But he thinks it’s too early to plan for a mine that hasn’t finished its feasibility studies.
The bill is one of many local or regional lands measures in Congress. Few, if any, stand a chance of passing on their own.
Murkowski says her mine-road measure could be combined into a package of similar legislation. That could also include her Sealaska land-selection bill.
But she says an omnibus measure might become too large.
“You have members who have a measure they want to have it be included. So there’s pressure to have a bigger package rather than a smaller package. Often times, if the package is too big, it can die of its own weight,” she says.
The U.S. House recently passed an omnibus measure including Congressman Don Young’s version of the Sealaska bill. But the package is considered dead on arrival in the Senate.
“The way that package is constructed, I think it’s fair to say it will not see action on this side. There are some measures that I think will meet with great opposition by some colleagues on the other side of the aisle, some who have a different perspective on some of the issues. And it’s been widely reported that the measure that passed the House will not be taken up here in the Senate,” she says.
Alaska Governor Sean Parnell supports development of the Niblack and Bokan Mountain mines.
He’s backed efforts to allow such projects in roadless areas of the Tongass. But the route is not on the list for his Roads to Resources Program.
Staffers say there’s not yet been a funding request.