Mine provides economic boon for Eklutna

Once a sensitive issue, gravel mining takes off in village

Posted: Tuesday, July 17, 2007

ANCHORAGE - Gravel mining used to be a sore subject in Eklutna.

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But times have changed.

This spring, large metal crushers began crunching out hundreds of tons of gravel per minute on the outskirts of the Athabascan village on the northeast edge of Anchorage.

Up to 200 trucks per day loaded with the humble commodity rumble down the Glenn Highway, headed for areawide construction projects.

The growl of gravel is music to the ears of Eklutna Inc., the village's Native corporation, though some say the new mine is creating a nuisance in the village.

Due to its size and location, the new gravel mine could have some far-reaching consequences for construction in Anchorage, which consumes more than 3 million tons of gravel per year, mostly mined from the Matanuska-Susitna area.

"Is this going to reduce construction costs? Yeah, a little bit. It gives contractors more options," said Charles Bates, general manager of Alaska Aggregate Products, the company set up by Cook Inlet Region Inc. and Alaska Interstate Construction to extract Eklutna's gravel.

The mine along the Glenn Highway is strategically located near a high-growth area in Anchorage.

It's already feeding paving projects at some big commercial and residential developments - the Wal-Mart expansion in Eagle River, the Tikahtnu Commons mall at the junction of Muldoon Road and the Glenn Highway, and the Creekside Town Center townhouse complex at Muldoon and DeBarr roads.

Eklutna gravel also could feed construction in the growing bedroom communities of Eagle River, Chugiak and Birchwood.

Eklutna Inc. owns the surface land at the mine, and CIRI owns the gravel beneath. The two expect to share royalty income as mining occurs, said Curtis McQueen, Eklutna's communications director.

Other regional Native corporations will not get a cut. Earnings from most types of extraction on Native land must be shared among the 12 regional corporations, but sand and gravel is exempt from Native revenue sharing under federal law.

Eklutna's gravel is not only bountiful - mining could last 50 years - it's closer to urban Anchorage than the other major source: the valley.

Local gravel sources are nearly depleted and almost all the gravel used in Anchorage construction comes from the valley, according to local geologists.

Valley gravel arrives by rail at South Anchorage sand and gravel plants. Eklutna gravel travels to town in 100 to 200 trucks per day.

It's cheaper to send gravel by rail from the valley to South Anchorage.

It's cheaper to truck gravel from Eklutna to northern parts of town.

"Somewhere in between, we're equal (in transportation cost)," Bates said. He's not expecting a dramatic change in local construction prices.

The biggest factors that cause price fluctuations in the gravel business are the costs of fuel and labor, he said.

One of his new company's big challenges will be to keep the 50 or so Eklutna villagers nearby from becoming unhappy with noise and dust from equipment.

"I haven't heard complaints," said Daniel Alex, the tribal administrator.

So far, the dust has been a mild nuisance, said Dorothy Cook, the village tribal president, who doesn't live in Eklutna but maintains an office there. Her office has gotten dusty at times. But some in the village have called to complain about the speed and noise of the gravel trucks, she said.

The posted speed limit at the mine is 45 mph but Bates says he keeps the truck speed at 25 mph. To an observer, the trucks may appear to be moving faster than they really are, he said.

"If there are complaints ... I go right to the driver. They have to work under the guidelines, or they don't work for us," Bates said. "For the most part, they listen and follow directions."

Eklutna previously staved off gravel projects that were located on sensitive lands.

For some time, Eklutna Inc. has been trying to get control of privately owned land on the northern tip of Eklutna to block mining there and preserve hunting, fishing and culturally significant sites, McQueen said.

But in this case, the village is set for some benefits from a mine. Two of its residents are getting trained for jobs there, and there's a hiring preference for Eklutna and CIRI shareholders if and when the mine expands. Plus, tentative reclamation plans for the mine are aimed at fixing damaged salmon habitat in the nearby Eklutna River.

Cook said she'd like to see more employment of villagers at the gravel mine.

"There are a lot of residents in that area who could use a job," Cook said.

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