by Dave Cannon
This letter to the editor is in regards to Representative Zulkosky’s recent announcement that she opposes the Donlin Gold project. In her statement, she states, “Projects like this must be done with the advice, consent, and for the benefit of the Indigenous people of our region—who stand to lose the most under a worst case-scenario.”
Unfortunately, the worst-case scenario assessment for a tailings dam failure was not evaluated by the Corps of Engineers (COE) in the Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), even though some individuals and tribes requested one be done.
Here’s an excerpt from a scoping letter dated March of 2013 by then Donlin Gold General Manager, Stan Foo: “Some participants at the scoping meetings stated that the EIS needs to address catastrophic failures such as pipeline breaks or dam failures. In considering the extent to which issues such as these should be addressed in the EIS, if at all, we encourage the Corps to give due consideration to those impacts which are foreseeable and essential to the consideration of alternatives versus those which are remote and highly speculative … we know of no other EISs that evaluated impacts due to a tailings dam failure, and we think that scenario should not be evaluated in the Donlin Gold EIS.”
Although two catastrophic tailings dam failures (i.e., one in British Columbia & one in Brazil that killed seventeen people) occurred within three years of when the above letter was written, the COE went along with Donlin’s request.
Representative Zulkosky also stated: “I have heard overwhelmingly from YK Delta residents, Tribes, and non-profit organizations about how the public comment and permitting process has been overly burdensome, ill-timed, and has likely suppressed necessary and meaningful consultation and engagement on the project.”
I have followed, or have been involved in the EIS process since the beginning, and agree that the process failed the people of the Kuskokwim. Mine proponents tout how many public meetings were held throughout the region and opportunities to comment, but it truly was time-consuming and burdensome to most residents. Being a biologist, and having dealt with the EIS process over the years, even I struggled to keep abreast of it all.
The Draft EIS contained over 7,000 pages, and was so technical and cumbersome that residents – and scientific experts – asked for additional time to digest everything. The six-year process was so onerous that it was only toward the end of the process that several lower and upper river villages realized what impacts the mine and associated activities could have. When they requested Government to Government relations with the COE, they were refused.
The Final Environmental Impact Statement was over 10,000 pages long, and I specifically asked the COE shortly after its release if anyone was going to come out to the region and explain what was in it … and their short answer was, “No”.
It’s not only local residents that feel that the EIS process was inadequate to fully address our concerns regarding the mine’s environmental consequences and potential impacts to important subsistence resources.
Dr. Ben Teschner, in his PhD dissertation that focused on the Donlin Gold EIS process titled Predicting Mining Company-Stakeholder Conflict & Incorporating Social Conditions into Mining Project Valuation, substantiated residents’ concerns with the process with the following excerpts:
“This attempt at improved stakeholder involvement had some successes, but it also highlights divergent goals within NEPA (i.e., National Environmental Policy Act) and a lack of trust between local stakeholders and regulators. Tribes were able to push for examination and disclosure of some of their environmental concerns but remain frustrated with NEPA’s limitations with respect to transform findings into enforceable protections.”
“Donlin’s EIS involved local tribal governments as cooperating agencies, a stakeholder engagement approach that was unique and potentially innovative. Yet, many stakeholders felt that these efforts were insufficient. Nearly all local stakeholders interviewed for this study expressed frustration with the NEPA process and the regulators who implemented it. They reported that they felt patronized by a bureaucratic process that focused on fitting stakeholder concerns into technical and scientific disciplines for analysis by outside experts. Many local stakeholders reported feeling unrepresented in the EIS and that stakeholders’ local knowledge was undervalued by regulators during the process.”
“The quantity of environmental, social, and public health information that regulators gathered on Donlin resulted in a Final EIS document that was over 10,000 pages. And yet, stakeholders expressed distrust and strong frustration with the EIS process and the regulators who implemented it regardless of whether those stakeholders supported or opposed the development of the mine.”
“Compared to the Draft EIS, the page count of the Final EIS ballooned to double the size — over 10,000 pages in total. The Draft EIS that had been released six months earlier and was the basis for the final round of public comment meetings. Some stakeholders expressed anger that they did not get to comment on the Final EIS saying that they were forced to comment on incomplete information.”
Dr. Teschner concluded: “The case study presented here adds to the body of work calling for improvement in how regulators manage stakeholder participation in the NEPA process, reaching the important conclusion that increasing the quantity of public comment and/or scientific study is insufficient to address many stakeholders’ concerns around how the law treats them and the information they contribute.”
“In the case of Donlin, the Army Corps noted that many of the impacts that the Donlin EIS disclosed, including some of those championed by cooperating agency tribes, did not fall under federal permitting authority. These impacts were left unresolved by the process.”
“This study adds to the literature on the power imbalances and politicization of information that underpins technocratic approaches to impact assessment. It concludes that simply augmenting the quantity of scientific study is unlikely to achieve NEPA’s goal of stakeholder involvement in the impact assessment process.”
Unfortunately, with all of the EIS’s drawbacks, the permitting process is chugging along. Many permits have been granted by the State, even though groups like the Orutsararmiut Native Council have challenged some of them, including the State’s inadequate assessment of water quality certifications and the impacts on aquatic resources from the gas pipeline coming from Cook Inlet (comments on that can be submitted to the Department of Natural Resources at http://dnr.alaska.gov/shared/emailforms/emailcontact.cfm?send=jeff.bruno).
Regarding the immense tailings dam that is proposed, the State still has to approve its design, and residents should demand a transparent process with that considering the potential impacts to irreplaceable subsistence resources (e.g., salmon and other fishes) should a failure occur.
Dave Cannon is a fisheries biologist living in Aniak.