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Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

The state of Alaska on May 13 affirmed its 2019 decision to issue a 401 clean water certification for an open-pit gold mine in Southwest Alaska despite a lawsuit contesting the determination.

Donlin Gold LLC proposes to develop a large open-pit, hard-rock gold mine near the confluence of Crooked Creek and the Kuskokwim River.

The Yup’ik tribe Orutsararmiut Native Council, of Bethel, and Earthjustice have sued, saying the mine would damage habitat for salmon and other species critical to providing food security for more than a dozen tribes in the area.

Experts in the field weighed in.

In making its decision, the state Department of Environmental Conservation relied on an expert report by Mark W. Johns. He said based on the final environmental impact statement for the project, the state concluded “…there is reasonable assurance that the proposed activity, as well as any discharge which may result, will comply with the applicable provisions of Section 401 of the CWA and the Alaska Water Quality Standards, 18 AAC 70….” (ADEC 2019).

He said “modeling results showed that predicted increases in Crooked Creek stream temperatures would remain below the State of Alaska’s most restrictive water quality temperature standard of 55.4 o F for (fish) egg/fry incubation and spawning areas and 59.0 o F for migration routes and rearing areas.”

Johns went on to say mercury contamination would not be a problem either. He said the mine would divert runoff in a watershed that contributes mercury to Crooked Creek, lowering the background levels of the toxic material so that mercury from mining activities would remain below allowable limits.

However, Orutsararmiut and Earthjustice submitted contradictory expert information from Tom Myers. He said Donlin’s experts have “not accounted for the many uncertainties which could cause the analysis to underpredict the impacts of the project on stream temperatures.” Also, he said many of the company’s assumptions on water temperatures were based on untested theories that could prove faulty.

Glenn C. Miller, Consulting Environmental Chemist, contributed findings on his analysis of Donlin’s predictions on mercury. He said “using one concentration of mercury for the volatilization modeling is such a gross approximation that the results have effectively no reliability.” He also said “the amount of mercury emissions from the tailings facility is uncertain, and will remain uncertain unless regulations are put in place to require actual measurements.”

Alaska stands by decision on Donlin Gold mine
Tribal lawsuit puts Donlin Gold in question

The site of the gold mine is owned by and has the support of two Alaska Native corporations, Calista and The Kuskokwim Corporation, which were created under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971. The state of Alaska has also authorized use of state lands for the project.

The project has met opposition from the Association of Village Council Presidents, which represents tribes in the region, 13 tribal governments, the regional Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation, and the National Congress of American Indians.

The proposed open pit mining operation would include a processing plant, waste rock and tailings storage, a 300 mile+ natural gas pipeline, a port, airstrip, power plant, water treatment plant and roads.

Tribes have sued, contesting the state’s earlier approval of the water certificate and a federal clean water permit.

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