by Dave Cannon
Back in January of 2013, when the Army Corps of Engineers held their initial “scoping meeting” in Aniak as part of the Donlin Gold Project Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process, I and others, were pleased to see some direct local involvement in the process. The Corps had contracted with a company out of Anchorage to compile the large-scale assessment, and there were several individuals on the team that were either born in the region, or lived here at some point during their careers; one, a well-respected anthropologist, had lived in Sleetmute and Aniak.
Prior to that, only a handful of local residents had ever heard of an EIS, and fewer knew how the process is supposed to work. Long before the formal EIS process began, many of the project’s proponents anticipated it would take roughly three years to complete; five and one-half years later, the Final EIS (FEIS) will be out on the 27th April. During that time, the Corps has gone through four Project Managers, and very few, if any, of the contractor’s early players are still involved.
The question that must be asked is, “Has the Donlin Gold Project EIS process served the residents of the Kuskokwim well?” We will only know the answer to that question after we have a chance to read the voluminous final document in the coming weeks or months…and that will be no easy task. It’s likely that the final version will be even larger than the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), which stood 12-inches high when all the volumes and summaries were stacked together. If you had a chance to look the draft over, you’d have noticed that it was chock-full of technical information that was not easily understood.
Let’s recap what the EIS process actually is, and what it’s supposed to do (the information below was taken directly from a government website).
An Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is a document prepared to describe the effects for proposed activities on the environment. “Environment,” in this case, is defined as the natural and physical environment and the relationship of people with that environment. This means that the “environment” considered in an EIS includes land, water, air, structures, living organisms, environmental values at the site, and the social, cultural, and economic aspects. An “impact” is a change in consequence that results from an activity. Impacts can be positive or negative or both. An EIS describes impacts, as well as ways to “mitigate” impacts. To “mitigate” means to lessen or remove negative impacts.
Therefore, an Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, is a document that describes the impacts on the environment as a result of a proposed action. It also describes impacts of alternatives as well as plans to mitigate the impacts.
Although the process does attempt to minimize or eliminate problems by considering numerous alternatives, it’s likely that not all concerns for such a large-scale project can be avoided. In the end then, an EIS is intended to disclose what impacts are anticipated…NOT necessarily prevent them.
So, it is possible that people’s expectations may not have been met. I know many folks who incorrectly believed that the EIS would “ensure” that there would be no impacts to subsistence resources like fish and wildlife, or any aspect of the environment. As we may soon see, that won’t be the case.
There were many issues disclosed during the public scoping period and incorporated in the DEIS that was released in 2015. Examples of concerns included the increased number of barges traveling up and down the river and conflicts between fisherman and the immense barges – especially since fishing restrictions have been in place that allow fishing only at limited times; erosion near fish camps from the barge wakes; impacts to smelt; increased mercury levels in the air and on land; more competition for moose, fish and other subsistence resources when the mining camp’s population swells; and possible riverbank erosion downstream of a new port facility in Bethel that could affect the villages of Oscarville, Napakiak, and Napaskiak.
There’s one major hindrance I see when it comes to anyone understanding whether or not their concerns have been addressed and if the process served us well – and that is that most of us will only have access to the document on a DVD or over the internet. That means that you must have access to a computer. If you download the version from the internet, it will take a tremendous amount of precious bandwidth. On top of that, navigating through either version won’t be easy; many people within the region, particularly elders, don’t have access to computers or aren’t highly proficient with them.
Unfortunately, the Corps has no plans to come out to the Kuskokwim and give presentations explaining the findings from this massive and complex study that is unlike any that’s ever been conducted in our region. The bottom line is, we’re basically on our own.
Regardless of the contents of the document itself, I believe that the process for the Donlin Gold Project EIS woefully falls short of letting people know whether or not their concerns have been addressed.
Keep in mind that the eventual decision by the Corps of Engineers whether to move forward or not with this project is final – there is no avenue for an appeal in the process.
Some may remember after the Draft Environmental Impact Statement was released, that I went around to numerous villages representing the Kuskokwim River Watershed Council giving a presentation titled Understanding the Donlin Gold DEIS & Writing Effective Comments. There’s a chance that I may be able to do the same once the final document is released. If your village or group would be interested in such a presentation in the coming months, you can contact me at 676-0012.
Dave Cannon writes from Aniak, AK.