Local Tribal Governments’ Concern Around Donlin Gold is Ignored

by Peter Evon

With the onslaught of state permits issued and proposed in recent weeks, it bears repeating that the Donlin project is not nearly as benign as incoming DNR Commissioner Corri Feige would have us believe. If it is constructed, the proposed Donlin gold mine will be one of the world’s largest open-pits. The project will dramatically change the Yukon Kuskokwim region, threatening the health and well-being of residents, communities, and wildlife for generations.

There are also social and cultural impacts that come with the boom bust economic reality of mining finite resources at this scale and the tremendous influx of population in our region, which will have complex impacts that Commissioner Feige chooses to ignore.

In her recent opinion article that Commissioner Feige published to promote the project, she touted local consultation with, and buy-in from, our communities on the Kuskokwim River. To that point let us assure you that the views on this project delivered by corporate employees of the Kuskokwim and Calista corporations are in no way representative of the majority of the people of the region I have been hearing from every day. In fact my tribe, along with 12 others have adopted resolutions of formal opposition to the Donlin project.

Our position of opposition was taken looking to our friends near other large mines around Alaska as examples of what to expect should a large mine be permitted here. There, tribal citizens are often dealing with the immense challenge of how to deal with contamination that has been deemed worth the economic benefit for relatively few local jobs and huge profits immediately shipped overseas.

Even within the borders of the Capital City, the State of Alaska has long been uninterested in addressing the real impacts of an ore spill at the Greens Creek dock in 1989 or ongoing fugitive lead-laden dust being spread to the forest and waterways where local clams now have 3-6 times the lead as before mining according to the DNR website. A seal was recently harvested near the mine with some of the highest levels of mercury contamination ever recorded in Alaska, well above a safe level for human consumption. Now the mine successfully lobbied the Board of Game to limit public access to a popular deer hunting spot close to Juneau.

Donlin’s proposed reclamation and closure plan is of great concern to us. I would like to see a plan that protects our descendants who will have to live with the consequences of this closure plan for all time. To close this mine, Donlin is proposing a mountain of mining waste and a pit lake of two square miles that will be polluted forever, requiring water treatment forever—and that is if everything goes according to plan. If things go wrong, as is normally the case for large mines, the consequences could be much worse for our communities, for our children, and for their children.

Pollutants and impacts from Donlin will affect our communities, culture, and the food and water upon which or people depend for our health and our customary and traditional way of life. Donlin would have a footprint of about 25 square miles. The open pit would be over two miles long, one mile wide and nearly 2,000 feet deep. Also – a 40 million gallon tank farm for diesel fuel is the energy needed for mining operations would be supplied via a 315 mile pipeline from Cook Inlet. The pipeline would cross streams for anadromous and resident fish species at 77 locations. Waste materials from the mine, called tailings, would be stored in a manmade pond held back by a 450-foot high dam.

What we’re asking for is an honest assessment of the Donlin mine, one that truly takes into account the risks to our land and our people. So far, we have been given a fast-tracked process along with broad and vague assurances from an ever-changing cast of politicians. While politicians come and go like the weather we will be the ones who have to pick up the pieces when the storm has passed. The local people deserve for our voice to be heard and welcome additional opportunity for dialogue with the new state administration.

Peter Evon is originally from Akiachak on the Kuskokwim River approximately 20 miles north of Bethel. He and his wife Katherine Evon have five children, ages two to 11. Evon grew up subsistence hunting and fishing and serves as Executive Director of the Bethel Orutsararmiut Traditional Native Council. He has previously been the Environmental Director for Akiachak Native Community before moving to Bethel several years ago. He has the experience of understanding the impacts from both the village and hub community of Bethel’s viewpoint having lived and subsisted in both areas.

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