Impacts to Kuskokwim Smelt in any way would not be protecting our way of life

A Response to Speak Your Mind article

by Dave Cannon

This is in regards to Andrew Guy’s Speak Your Mind article titled Protecting our Way of Life Through Sustainable Development.

Mining proponents are good at discounting potential impacts. A recent example is what Pebble’s CEO, Tom Collier, said regarding the Pebble project. On an NBC Today Show broadcast titled Why Alaska residents are fighting against a billion-dollar mine project, he’s quoted as saying, “there’s zero chance of doing irreparable damage”.

Nothing could be further from the truth! Pebble’s plans call for permanently destroying 8-miles of salmon bearing streams and 20-miles of streams containing resident species in the N. Fork Koktuli alone.

That brings me to the Donlin Gold project, and statements by Mr. Guy regarding sustainability. Although there will be substantial economic opportunities if the mine is built, there will be tradeoffs.

Both Mr. Guy and Andy Cole (Donlin’s General Manager) wrote the following in Bethel’s Delta Discovery newspaper: “Both Calista and TKC take very seriously their responsibility to ensure that development of the Donlin Gold project is carried out in a thoughtful manner that safeguards Shareholders’ way of life and protects all resources, including salmon and rainbow smelt.”

They cannot ensure smelt won’t be impacted, unless they cease barging during the period when adults and eggs are in the river. For now, they plan on putting barges on the river shortly after breakup, with no interruption in operations.

Why would a tiny fish in Alaska’s second largest river be of a concern? Well, it’s a unique population compared to other big river systems … smaller ones too. In the Togiak system, spawning starts in late May and runs for a month. Kuskokwim smelt appear to all enter the river’s mouth en masse and progress upstream to spawn in a relatively short stretch of river. Upon arriving on the spawning grounds, they only stay for a day or two then travel downstream to the Kuskokwim Bay.

Secondly, they hold an ecological significance being prey for sheefish, pike, gulls and other species. Lastly, they are an important subsistence food item.

Impacting the smelt in any way would not be protecting our way of life here in the Kuskokwim.

Over the last decade, the Kuskokwim has experienced five unusual low water years from mid-May into early June, about the time that smelt are spawning and eggs are developing. Researchers studied the smelt during two of those low water periods; the FEIS determined: “During the 2015 rainbow smelt spawning survey, spawning occurred as shallow as 8.7 feet along a relatively confined channel segment. The propeller scour of passing tug traffic in such locations could have resulted in detectable incidents of injury or mortality to incubating fish eggs or population-level effects depending on the tug’s horsepower rating and engine speed. Because of the relatively shallow depth across this particular channel segment, it is unlikely that impacts to incubating rainbow smelt eggs could have been avoided by altering the line of travel of barge traffic.”

Here’s an excerpt from the FEIS: “To minimize potential impacts of bed scour, barge traffic would be tracked using GPS and real-time river stage and depth monitoring systems to ensure vessel passages are conducted through the deeper portions of the channel, especially in confined and shallow segments of the river.

That sounds all well and good, but that word ensure is not something I take literally; especially regarding barges not straying from the deepest sections of channel. Currently, there is a gravel barge stuck within sight of Aniak. There was a Crowley barge stuck above Sleetmute this summer. What’s troubling is that neither incident occurred during low water conditions.

This is but one concern for the Donlin Gold project to impact what has been to date naturally sustainable subsistence resources like smelt. Another big concern, and this one has to do with salmon, is the need to treat water leaving the pit lake for forever. There’s no way to ensure that something won’t go wrong with the equipment needed to do such a thing during that period of time. Think about that – forever is a long time.

Water quality adjacent to the Red Dog mine site may be better than naturally occurred given the location of the deposit, but that is an anomalous situation. The ratio of water quality degradation resulting from mining activities compared to improvements is exponentially skewed in favor of the degraded conditions. One example countering the performance of the Red Dog mine’s water treatment is the water now leaving the Mount Polley site … but a discussion over the concern for the immense tailings dam proposed for Donlin will be left for another time.

Dave Cannon – a fish biologist and resident of the Kuskokwim region for 20-years.