The massive proposed open-pit gold mine and its toxic chemicals threaten salmon, human health, and the Tribes’ traditional ways of life.
Three Tribes in the Kuskokwim River region of Southwest Alaska, represented by Earthjustice, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court on Wednesday, April 5, challenging the Donlin Gold Mine, a project that would be the largest pure gold mine in the world.
Donlin Gold LLC, owned by the mining giants NovaGold and Barrick Gold Corporation, plans to build the massive open pit mine 10 miles north of the Kuskokwim River and the village of Crooked Creek next to a salmon spawning stream that flows into the Kuskokwim River.
As in the fight over the proposed Pebble Mine in the nearby Bristol Bay watershed that was vetoed in January by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta residents are concerned the Donlin mine would harm their ecosystem, along with salmon and other fish and wildlife they depend on for food and their traditional ways of life. The Tribes suing to halt the proposed project are Orutsararmiut Native Council, Tuluksak Native Council and the Organized Village of Kwethluk.
Citing three fundamental flaws in the environmental and subsistence analyses and authorizations for the project, the lawsuit challenges key authorizations of the massive open pit mine including a federal permit allowing thousands of acres of wetlands to be filled and a federal authorization granting access across federal lands for a 316-mile pipeline from Cook Inlet to the mine site. The project as approved should be halted, the Tribes argue, because it is too risky and does not protect human health and subsistence uses.
The Tribes are requesting that the court invalidate these federal authorizations. Should Donlin wish to proceed, federal agencies would need to look more carefully at the project’s anticipated harms. The Corps would also need to impose requirements that prevent predicted adverse impacts to Kuskokwim River rainbow smelt.
Those who live downstream and are opposed to the mine view it as a looming threat to the health, culture, traditional ways of life and food security in the region. Tribes are concerned about the risk of a tailings dam failure, the potential loss of rainbow smelt in the Kuskokwim River, human health impacts, mercury contamination in surrounding waters, dewatering of salmon streams, and more.
Specifically, Tribes are asking that the federal agencies be required to study the impacts to downstream waters and villages from a potentially catastrophic tailings dam failure, which the agencies refused to do in the environmental impact statement.
The Tribes also want federal agencies to consider and prevent predicted impacts to Kuskokwim River rainbow smelt. Propeller wash from Donlin’s barges could kill or injure rainbow smelt eggs or larvae or wash the eggs downriver, preventing fertilization. Smelt are important to people in the region and are also a key prey species for salmon and other subsistence species.
Finally, the Tribes are asking the court to require the federal agencies to consider serious human health concerns identified by the Alaska Department of Health but ignored in the federal environmental impact statement.
Following are statements from the Tribes participating in the lawsuit and from Earthjustice.
Walter Jim, Orutsararmiut Native Council Chairman: “Tribes up and down the Kuskokwim River and throughout the region are banding together because we do not want to see this mine, including the pipeline, materialize. We’re concerned, for example, that the pit lake could overflow, or the tailings dam might fail. This would devastate the fisheries on the Kuskokwim River and its tributaries, and negatively impact the health of the people, wildlife, and fish of our region. These risks to our health, our waters, and our lands are unacceptable.”
Brian Henry, Orutsararmiut Native Council Executive Director: “We’ve been on this land for almost 10,000 years. What will happen if a tailings spill occurs? We all know the answer. It would be catastrophic to our people and our way of life. We have no other home. If built, the Donlin Gold Project and the infrastructure needed to support it could have devastating ecological and cultural effects for the people of Bethel and the Yukon-Kuskokwim region. The federal government should be examining this project for the collective impacts to our region, subsistence and way of life. We have been fighting this fight since it began, and we will continue that fight. In essence, our wellbeing and our lives are at stake.”
Boris Epchook, President, Organized Village of Kwethluk: “Our primary concern is the Kuskokwim River. It is the lifeblood of our villages that has sustained our customary and traditional practices for generations. Everything flows downstream, so if there is an impact to the river system or an environmental or natural disaster that causes a release of toxic chemicals at the mine, we will all be affected. The Kuskokwim River ecosystem is a sustainable resource we have always relied on. We must protect it.”
Middy Peter, President, Tuluksak Native Community: “Our village has been dealing with the negative effects of mining since at least the 1930s. That old mine (Nyac) did not help our community. It created health problems for our people, degraded our water and the environment and affected salmon and other fish and animals. We feel rich when have our subsistence foods and when we don’t have them, we feel poor. Donlin Gold will try to keep the tailings contained but it will still seep out no matter how hard they try to prevent it. No matter how much they do to ensure safety, all mines have that danger in front of them.”
Maile Tavepholjalern, Earthjustice Senior Attorney: “Because of flawed studies that failed to thoroughly consider the environmental and subsistence impacts of the mine, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has issued an illegal permit and BLM and the U.S. Department of the Interior have authorized an illegal right-of-way. The Corps also failed to prevent predicted impacts to Kuskokwim River rainbow smelt, an important subsistence and prey fish. This lawsuit seeks to overturn those authorizations, which would halt the mine. Before it moves forward again, federal agencies would need to conduct a more honest assessment of the mine’s impacts and identify and require measures to protect smelt.”
The Donlin Gold Mine project is expected to extract 556 million tons of ore to produce about 30 million ounces of gold over the 27-year life of the mine – and would generate 2.5 billion tons of waste rock, some of which would generate acid drainage.
The mine project comprises three main parts – a 316-mile-long buried gas pipeline from Cook Inlet in Southcentral Alaska to the mine site; transportation infrastructure that includes a new port, a port expansion, and a tripling of barge traffic on the Kuskokwim River; and the 14-square-mile mine site itself. The mine site includes an open pit more than two miles long, a mile wide and 1,800 feet deep, plus a processing plant, waste rock and tailings storage facilities, water treatment and power plants, dams and reservoirs, airstrips, and access roads. In all, the mine project would cover 25 square miles.
After the mine ceases operating, a 471-foot tailings dam containing more than 550 tons of toxic mine waste and a waste rock mountain reaching 1,115 feet tall and spanning 2,500 acres would remain. The open pit would be filled with contaminated water, forming a permanent lake that would never meet water quality standards and would require water treatment in perpetuity. A failure of the tailings dam would cause catastrophic damage to the region.