Federal Government Okays New Massive Gold Mine in Alaska, Local Tribes Outraged
After a six-year environmental review process and against the wishes of many local native tribes and residents, the federal government gave the go-ahead on the development of a new gold mine in Alaska, in what would become the largest gold mine in the world.
Construction of the new mine called the Donlin Gold Project is in southwestern Alaska, about 275 miles of Anchorage and ten miles north of the Kuskokwim River community of Crooked Creek.
Joint Decision on Donlin Gold
The Army Corps and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released a joint decision on Monday which approved of the Donlin Gold Project and issued the project’s first permits. The initial permits approved dredging the area for construction of the mine, construction of initial structures, and permission to discharge “fill material” into the surrounding wetlands.
Anchorage Daily News cautioned that the project still had to seek scores of individual state and federal permits, but Donlin Gold advocates were pleased with Monday’s news.
“We still have a ways to go for sure, but today’s decision is a really big deal,” said Kurt Parkan, a Donlin Gold spokesman. Donlin Gold is owned by the mining company NovaGold.
Advocates for the mining project have largely focused on its potential for job creation as estimates say the project could employ 3,200 workers at its peak construction period. After construction, the mine is estimated to create 430 jobs in the first year, increasing to 1000 jobs in the following years and for the remainder of the estimated 27-year lifetime of the mine.
Local Tribes Fear Losing Way of Life
Not everyone was happy with Monday’s news, local tribes and residents were reportedly outraged by the decision and had asked the Alaska governor to extend the environmental review process by a year so tribes could meaningfully participate in the environmental review.
An article by the Orutsrarmiut Native Council (ONC) claimed that “the sovereign tribal governments of the region were barred from attending a press event” and that the public-hearings promised to place prior to issuing the permits never happened. The ONC claimed they conducted a recent survey on the mine and that most residents didn’t know much about the Donlin project and that no meetings were ever held to inform them about plans for the mine.
The article went on to explain that residents rely on the natural habitat for survival – residents pick berries, fish, hunt and put up food to sustain them through the winter.
“Donlin would be the largest gold mine in the world. The social and environmental impacts could be devastating to our subsistence region and traditional Yup’ik way of life where we have less opportunity for cash income but lots of subsistence foods from the land to keep our communities and families healthy,” said Mary Matthias, Natural Resources Director for Orutsararmiut Native Council.
3,500 Acres of Wetlands and 226,000 Feet of Streams to be Impacted
Plans for the mine would include the creation of a 316-mile gas pipeline, a 2,350-acre tailings pond to hold waste materials, a 30-mile access road to a port where barges would haul cargo, supplies and diesel fuel along the Kuskokwim River and out to the Bering Sea.
The Army Corps admitted an estimated 3,500 acres of wetlands and 226,000 linear feet of streams would be impacted, but said the Donlin Gold plan was the least environmentally damaging.
According to the ONC, the potential impacts the over 10,000 page Final Environmental Impact Statement outlined in their assessment included “increased levels of mercury both atmospherically deposited and in the Yukon and Kuskokwim River, damage to salmon habitat, disruption of smelt spawning, increased erosion of the banks of the Kuskokwim, and much more.”
Salmon Could Stop Donlin Gold Mine
There is a glimmer of hope for local tribes and residents as an initiative on the ballot in November could stop the project dead in its tracks if it passes. The initiative which is being called Stand For Salmon would designate all waters in Alaska as salmon habitats, unless proven otherwise. Doing so would require the Department of Fish and Wildlife to hold any projects in salmon habitats to much tougher standards and would give the department more power to stop projects.
Critics of Stand For Salmon call it an anti-mining or anti-development effort but Emily Anderson of the Wild Salmon Center, who helped draft the bill, disagrees.
“This is a proactive way to get ahead of the curve to put strong fisheries protections standards in place that really encourage those responsible development projects that are not trading one resource for another,” Anderson said.
The Stand For Salmon bill could be the last chance for preserving the way of life for tribal residents in the region.
“We are now calling on the Trump administration, the Walker administration, the board and staff of Calista, Doyon, and Kuskokwim Corps . . . anyone who may be an ultimate decider on this project, to slow down this rushed process. Please come to our region and our villages. Meet with our governments and our people. Work with us who live here to decide on whether this project is compatible with our local economy and way of life. From our tribes perspective, this mine is devastating. We are federally recognized Yup’ik Tribes located along the Kuskokwim and Yukon Rivers, where we have subsisted on the salmon, smelt, migratory birds, and other ecological resources of these rivers for thousands of years. There must be respectful leader-to-leader dialogue and decision making with our people, and it must happen now,” said Matthias of the Orutsararmiut Native Council.
If you want to support the Orutsararmiut Native Council or Stand For Salmon, you can contact them through their websites: NativeCouncil.org and StandForSalmon.org. If you want to contact or support the mining project, you can go to DonlinGold.com.