Mercury contamination of the watershed and the tundra close to the Donlin Gold Mine is concerning

by Grant Fairbanks

I haven’t been sleeping well since I attended the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s meeting here in Bethel on Jan. 23rd. concerning Donlin Gold’s pollutant discharge permit and their Waste management permit.
After reading the 17 page document and then researching what it would allow to be released into Crooked Creek and then the Kuskokwim I became very angry, worried and just plain upset with the documents.
The state of Alaska and the Federal EPA will allow Donlin Gold to dump treated mine water into Crooked Creek of a lesser quality than the water that is present today. Once the mine starts it is possible that during low water periods in winter the only water in the creek could be treated mine outfall waters. There are no studies that show if the resident fish in Crooked Creek can survive in this treated but polluted waters.
The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation on one hand is tasked with protecting our water supplies but they are also mandated to accommodate important economic developments. This is based on the economic benefits of the mine to regional corporation shareholders and mine employees but this does not take into effect the significant environmental risks and disruptions that mining of this type will impose on residents of the Kuskokwim and their subsistence way of life.
The draft environmental impact statement for this mine discloses that mercury deposition to nearby watersheds could increase by about 42 percent. Temperature changes resulting from mining could affect the fish and other life in the Crooked Creek watershed during the summers and impact spawning and incubation of the resident fish.
Very few people know that the water treatment for the mine will be needed in perpetuity, meaning for hundreds and thousands of years. If this treatment fails then the landowners will be responsible for the clean up.
I’m very worried about the mercury contamination of the watershed and the tundra close to the mine. The EPA guidelines will allow Donlin Gold to release more than 3200 pounds of mercury into the atmosphere every year. This is 40 times more than all industries in Alaska per year. The fugitive dust from the mine will surround the countryside and go as far as Crooked Creek. The mercury loading of this area will be a big problem in the future because this area is one of the largest subsistence fisheries in Alaska. Mercury concentrations in fish tissue in this area is already at a high level and this mine will knock us out of the ballpark.
Recently there circulated a petition to the Department of Fish and Game to tighten the rules for salmon habitat and 32,127 Alaskans signed the petition asking the Dept. of Fish and Game to better protect salmon. In Juneau a similar bill was written, HB 199, to protect Salmon habitat from activities that would cause harm to salmon. If a project will significantly impact salmon habitat then it would be put through a vetting process by ADFG to make sure salmon will be protected.
Sure this will cost the mining companies more money but it will make sure there are salmon for our grandchildren. The lower 48 has lost almost all of their salmon stocks and Alaska is the last stronghold.
Donlin Gold talks a good PR story but past history shows that they haven’t been able to run a clean gold mine. Donlin Gold’s partner, NovaGold’s only mine was located outside of Nome at Rock Creek and the mine closed shortly after startup due to water quality issues. Barrick the other Donlin Partner in 2013 made national news when their Pascua-Lama mine on the border of Chile and Argentina was closed by the courts due to 33 charges and issued a total closure sanction for 5 breaches concerning impacts to flora and fauna, incomplete monitoring and discharge of acidic waters into a river.
You think we should trust these guys with our fish, berries, air and water? Our state and federal regulations are so full of loopholes that the chances of this mine not harming our land is zero to none.
There are a few states that have outlawed mines that have water treatment in perpetuity. In fact the state of Alaska has never licensed a mine of this type. In fact there is the new saying, “pathway to walk-away”, meaning that if a mine can’t close down its water treatment plant after 10 years past closure then it shouldn’t be permitted.
Are we so stupid to believe the state and the mine will have money to operate a water treatment plant 33 years from now? Are we so gullible to believe that Donlin will be forced to have financial responsibilities after they close the mine? What happens in 2083 when the mine leaks into Crooked Creek during the coldest winter on record and there is no one on site with massive amounts of equipment to clean up a disaster? What happens to the water treatment plant in 2062 when the pumps break and the weather is so bad that planes can’t fly for a week? There should not be what ifs.
This is why I can’t sleep. I’ve read almost all the technical papers and mine plans and there are too many unanswered questions. Donlin should not be issued permits while there are so many questions of importance. Their designs of many aspects of the mine haven’t been tested in real life. Their water treatment plant outflow water hasn’t been tested on our fish. Their mercury recovery systems have not been tested as to their proposed percentages. Their past history makes me very worried. The current federal EPA leadership is developmental and not an environmental protection agency. Our own state political arena only cares for the projects and not the future of the health of the environment. We have a perfect storm here.


  1. Donlin just donated to the pot of $1,000,000 that the mining industry is using to fight those fighting to protect fisheries habitat. You are correct. They will push all the limits.

  2. Thawing permafrost will exacerbate the (mercury) contamination. The permittee may be hoping that such will obscure their contamination. They will do more harm than they are permitted to do, that’s just how they profit. All the waterfowl that touch their ponds and wastewater will be contaminated and take contaminants/toxins to other locations, and waters. It’s not just what they put on paper we’ll be stuck with, and suffer loss from. It’s much broader.

  3. Thanks Grant Fairbanks, for the complete explanation of the Donlin Mine. You are fully informed and you are stepping up. Thanks for all of the info.
    Say No to the Mine!

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