Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

The state of Alaska is sticking with its 2018 decision to issue a clean water certificate for a proposed gold mine in western Alaska. The May 27 decision comes with the support of some of the Yup’ik people in the area and over the objections of others.

Developer Donlin Gold estimates the ground near Crooked Creek holds 34 million ounces of gold, one of the world’s largest known undeveloped gold deposits. Once the gold is out of the ground, potentially 1.3 million ounces of gold could be produced annually.

The mine would be located about 280 miles northwest of Anchorage and near Crooked Creek, which drains 15 miles (or 33 miles following the stream’s course) into one of Alaska’s major rivers, the Kuskokwim River. The regional hub community Bethel is situated on the banks of the Kuskokwim River.

Pros and cons

The state’s decision supports the interests of Donlin Gold and two for-profit Alaska Native corporations created under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. The Native corporations Calista and The Kuskokwim Corporation own the subsurface and surface rights to the mine site.

Both have signed agreements with Donlin Gold for benefits to their shareholders, including increased dividends, scholarships, jobs, contracts for barge and other services, and advisory committees. The mine also could bring promised infrastructure that would reduce energy costs and bring faster internet. Donlin has said the project will hire thousands of workers during three to four years of construction and other positions during the mine’s projected 27-year operations.

The state’s decision, however, flies in the face of the wishes of the Association of Village Council Presidents, which represents all tribal governments in the region. Opposition has also been expressed by 13 tribal governments, the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation, and the National Congress of American Indians.

Because of high transportation costs and subsequent high-food costs, subsistence is a critically important economic asset in rural Alaska, and particularly in the lower Kuskokwim region. Tribes are concerned mining activities in general will harm the fish and game harvested from the wild by the Yup’ik people in the region. They’re worried that mercury pollution, loss of salmon habitat, and higher water temperatures will all adversely impact salmon, a substantial source of protein.

The proposed Donlin Gold mine is shown with a marker in this  Google Earth satellite image of Alaska.

Challenges and concerns

The Bethel tribe Orutsararmiut Native Council challenged the state’s Clean Water Act Section 401 certification after it was issued in 2018.

Alaska Administrative Judge Kent Sullivan issued a decision on the tribe’s lawsuit in April. He said, “it is obvious that the overwhelming majority of the salmon productivity from that segment of the main stem of Crooked Creek will be eliminated. In the absence of mitigation or other compensatory measures, it cannot be said under these circumstances that the protection of existing uses is reasonably certain to occur.” He recommended Donlin rescind the certificate.

In the wake of the state’s decision to uphold certification, the tribe issued its response. “There is nothing more important to Kuskokwim communities than maintaining a way of life that has sustained them through millennia -- a way of life that is integrally intertwined with the salmon and smelt of the Kuskokwim River and its tributaries,” said Executive Director Mark Springer of Orutsararmiut Native Council.

“The Donlin Gold mine will result in a 40 percent increase in mercury deposition to surface waters near the mine. Once in the environment, mercury can be transformed into methylmercury, a toxic substance that bioaccumulates up the food chain – particularly in fish and shellfish. Historical contamination from mining has led to already-elevated mercury levels in the surrounding environment,” the tribe said.

At a recent webinar, Orutsararmiut tribal citizen Gloria Simeon of Bethel, said, “the river, as well as the land, are essential for sustaining the food and resources we depend on. This is our land. This is where we belong.”

“There is no mine on Earth of this size or type that has ever succeeded in not contaminating surrounding waters, and Donlin will be no different,” said Olivia Glasscock, the Earthjustice attorney representing Orutsararmiut Native Council. “Earthjustice will continue to challenge this short-sighted plan, which would rob an entire region of a priceless river only to line the pockets of mine developers.”

(Related: Tribal lawsuit puts Donlin Gold in question)

State’s position

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation last week issued a notice denying the judge’s recommendation. The department said its clean water certificate is supported by a “reasonable basis in law and substantial evidence in the record.”

“In this matter, Orutsararmiut cherry-picked portions of the record describing potential impacts in a highly technical report and characterized them as conclusive. The Division consistently and thoroughly rebutted each of Orutsararmiut’s assertions with analysis of relevant information and data using its subject-matter expertise,” the state’s notice stated.

The state said the tribe’s concerns have been addressed through conditions attached to the certification. Donlin must comply with permit requirements, which include assessments of aquatic life and hydrologic conditions that could be impacted by the mine.

Throughout the life of the project, Donlin also must monitor chemical, biological, and physical aspects, as well as fish numbers, mercury levels, water flow and temperature.

Donlin plans to recover mercury used in the milling and refining process and ship it to the Pacific Northwest for long-term storage.

Reactions

The Alaska Native regional corporation Calista's responded to the state's decision  in a statement saying, “As landowner, Calista is committed to developing a mining operation consistent with our Elders’ vision of responsible development that creates jobs and economic benefits while safeguarding our environment and culture. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act obligates us to manage Calista lands to achieve self-determination and socio-economic benefits for our Shareholders." The company also said salmon and other aquatic life will be protected.

President and CEO Andrea Gusty of The Kuskokwim Corporation, emailed to say " "TKC's priorities are, and always have been, supporting our shareholders and protecting our land. We support development of our resources when it can be done in a responsible way. While we have no control over the state or federal permitting processes, we believe TKC’s contractual rights to oversight of the proposed Donlin Gold project add a layer of protection for our people and the resources they rely upon."

The developer Donlin Gold said the state made the right decision. The developer responded to the state’s decision to uphold the certificate, stating, “the scientific work done to date, and the continuing collection of data and analysis, will be verified through extensive, open, and transparent monitoring required by State permits. Simply put, we will not operate the project without demonstrated compliance with the State’s water quality standards.”

Those measures would be incorporated into what would be one of the world’s largest gold mines.

Along with an open pit mine would come facilities for waste rock, tailings storage, and a processing plant; plus a natural gas pipeline from Cook Inlet, which is some 312 miles to the east of the proposed mine. The project would also include a port, roads, an airstrip, a power plant, and a water treatment plant.

The state certificate was needed to get a federal permit. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Land Management issued a joint record of decision approving the project under Clean Water Act Section 404 in August 2018.

The state’s decision on its clean water certificate may be appealed to the superior court within 30 days from May 27, the date the order was issued.

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This story was updated to add late arriving comments.