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Alaska Has a Rock Shortage

Infrastructure projects are on hold in its northern reaches as the state struggles to find gravel
By Gina Carey,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 4, 2024 6:50 AM CST
Alaska Has a Rock Shortage
An exploratory drilling camp at the proposed site of the Willow oil project on Alaska's North Slope.   (ConocoPhillips via AP, File)

Alaska has a gravel problem, and it's affecting development in a region that needs it most. Per High Country News, long-term infrastructure projects in remote North Slope, the northernmost borough along the Arctic Ocean, are experiencing delays as the state struggles to find usable rock in the area. "There's a big need for gravel ... is really what it comes down to," said Trent Hubbard a geologist with the Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys. Land there is largely made up of permafrost and mud, according to blog Living Stingy, making gravel for building roads, runways, and RV parks hard to find.

Simply transporting rocks up north is a solution that comes with a hefty price tag. Jeff Currey, an engineer in Alaska's Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, says gravel bids for North Slope projects go as high as $800 per cubic yard (which could cover about 50 square feet), while down in Anchorage, the same materials would run about $15 for a cubic yard. "The DOT has paid on the order of a couple hundred dollars a cubic yard for material being barged in, because that's the only way to do it," he said. This makes connecting the eight main communities in the 95,000-square-mile region by road a complicated project—despite its importance to economic development, it's been under evaluation since 2018.

Climate change has increased risks to infrastructure as frozen ground thaws, creating more projects that demand gravel to stabilize areas. Meanwhile, ConocoPhillips was recently approved to start drilling for oil in the area, and must mine its own gravel to source enough to fill 12,800 Olympic-size swimming pools. People are feeling the pinch, too. Living Stingy reported on the shortage in 2018, adding some local color to the need for rationing. After waiting in line for three hours for fine gravel, Anchorage resident Homer Gulsap could only be allotted a five-pound bucket. "What am I supposed to do with this?" he complained. "Make a rock garden?" (Alaska is experience a "pandemic of snow".)

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