How one mine transformed the Northwest Arctic Borough

by Rosie Barr

As a NANA shareholder, former NANA vice president of Lands and now vice president of Lands and Natural Resources for Calista Corporation, I know how a mine and an indigenous people can both co-exist and complement each other.
I personally saw how the Red Dog Mine has been a positive transformation for the men, women and children of the Northwest Arctic Borough. I saw how Teck, a mining company, strives to do its best to be respectful of our culture and supportive of our subsistence way of life.
I worked closely with Teck and the Red Dog Subsistence Committee (which is comprised of Kivalina and Noatak residents) to discuss mine operations and ways to avoid impacts to the environment and subsistence activities. We met at a minimum on a quarterly basis, but increased the frequency of our meetings during the spring seal and fall caribou hunting periods. I personally saw how the timing of the annual shipping schedule for Red Dog concentrate is built around the needs of the subsistence hunts for bearded seals and beluga. I also saw the benefits of having the concentrate trucks traveling from the mine to the port site halted during caribou migration across the transportation corridor.
I also witnessed the stream downriver from the mine grow healthier because the mine created diversion ditches, moving the natural flow of water away from the ore bed. The water upstream and water flowing through the Red Dog Mine had very high levels of naturally occurring metals, which created a naturally toxic environment, incapable of supporting aquatic life. Red Dog’s treated water discharge has helped to improve the water quality downstream of the mine so that the stream now sports a thriving Dolly Varden population where one could not exist before. This improvement occurred because the mine has discharged treated mine water, which is of better quality than the natural receiving waters, into it for more than 25 years.
But the mine has done more than focus on being culturally sensitive and protective of the environment. It has served as an agent of positive change for the Northwest Arctic Borough. The mine and the economic activity it sparks has increased villagers’ economic opportunity, increased median household incomes and provided good-paying jobs. Revenue from the mine also allowed the Northwest Arctic Borough to fund the construction of new schools in the region. NANA assisted in the formation of the borough in anticipation of Red Dog Mine operations.
A study by UAF’s Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) found that 57% of employees at the mine were NANA shareholders (, Spring 2015, Mining and Sustainable Communities). These jobs allow shareholders to continue their subsistence way of life by helping them afford the equipment, fuel and supplies needed for subsistence. This provides inspiration and hope for NANA’s youth, showing them that they too can have a positive future.
Red Dog Mine provided a path to a promising career for many students and provided the critical mass to allow the school district to provide vocational training and other services. The mine also offers students the ability to tour the mine through the Career Awareness and Job Shadow programs. Due to this clear career pathway, graduation rates have increased as has student performance.
With Donlin Gold, that can be your future, too.
Some of you are concerned what Donlin Gold could do to our environment, our lifestyle. That’s certainly understandable. Many residents of the NANA region asked similar questions when NANA, like Calista and The Kuskokwim Corporation (TKC), chose some of its land for its mineral potential and then invited a mining company to develop that potential. That was more than 25 years ago for NANA, which proudly writes on its website: “Red Dog is more than just a mine developing essential minerals; it is a mechanism for hope and a catalyst for northwest Alaska and the statewide economy.”
Since mining began in 1982, NANA has retained about $480 million of the $1.3 billion it has received in net proceeds from Red Dog. It distributed over $221 million to its shareholders in dividends and additional funds through benefits like scholarships, medical/funeral assistance and more. And under the 7i provision of ANCSA, NANA has shared the rest of the proceeds with the other regional and village corporations, including those in the YK Delta. Every year the shareholders of Calista and our village corporations benefit from the work done at the Red Dog Mine.
It takes foresight, commitment, strong partnerships and continuous communication to develop our natural resources in a way that protects our subsistence way of life and delivers real economic benefits to our neighbors. As the same ISER study points out: “These achievements (in the Northwest Arctic Borough) were not pre-determined; resource development does not automatically create these improvements. The achievements were the result of the on-going partnership between the mining company, NANA Corporation, the borough government, the school district and others. The partners created concrete strategies to achieve these results – high levels of local employment, career pathways, etc. The continuing commitment to the original goals, the ability to adapt strategies as needed, and the multi-party partnership have all contributed to these achievements for the communities of the Northwest Arctic Borough.”
The YK Delta now has a similar opportunity with the great treasure it has in Donlin Gold. Calista and TKC have signed strong agreements with the mining company, agreements that will ensure that mining is done responsibly and the residents benefit from the asset they own. As the Vice President of Lands and Natural Resources for Calista, my responsibility is to work with shareholders, residents and organizations of the YK, the project staff and the regulatory agencies to ensure that the water and food such as salmon and other precious subsistence resources are protected. This is critical for any project development and the highest priority for Calista.
As shareholders, I hope that many of you will pursue higher education for mining careers, but most importantly, environmental sciences. Our goal is to have as many shareholders as possible working at the mine, ensuring that the mine operates to the highest environmental standards. Please join us.
The Donlin Gold project gives us hope and opportunity.
Rosie Barr is the Vice President of Lands for the Calista Corporation.