Donlin Gold may not be building their gold mine right now, but they are in the middle of construction.
The company that wants to build one of the world’s biggest gold mines is currently renovating a church in Chuathbaluk, a village on the Kuskokwim River. Why? Donlin says that investing in communities near the mine is being “a good neighbor.”
From the outside, Chuathbaluk’s Russian Orthodox church looks like a classic Alaska cabin, but with the iconic pointed domes that resemble the top of an ice cream cone. They are called cupolas. First built in the late 1800s, the church was rebuilt in its current location in 1952. During the renovation they’ve found icons and religious paintings that date back to 1914.
The current church is about 70 years old and was in need of a new roof, a better stove and insulation. Donlin Gold, which wants to build a gold mine 30 miles away from Chuathbaluk, stepped in and offered to pay for the fixes. Calista Corp., which owns the mineral rights to the mine, took over the construction this year.
Eric Morgan Sr. is the subdeacon for the church and is very happy that Donlin is helping with the renovations.
“We can’t express our thanks. I go like this in my chest,” Morgan said, pointing to his chest and beating it with his hand.
“Holding my hands, my chest together. Holding my hand, like thanks from the heart from the whole village,” Morgan added.
Donlin spokesperson Kristina Woolston called it the right thing to do.
“It’s important that, you know, that your neighbors show a vested interest, and this is something we are, you know, showing every day, year after year: that we’re investing now, and we’re investing in the future of these communities,” Woolston said.
Donlin’s community relations department is its largest, and the company has been making these efforts for decades. It has already rebuilt a church in Crooked Creek, the village closest to the mine. Donlin also helps communities remove waste.
“In Bethel, we just hosted its first annual recycling event,” Woolston said.
Donlin hands out life jackets along the Kuskokwim River and donates to local nonprofits. Those investments cost about a million dollars each year.
On the same day that KYUK visited Chuathbaluk, Donlin Gold was filming a video about the church renovation.
“We love to gather stories from stakeholders all throughout the region to hear their concerns about the community going forward, what are their priorities, what are their hopes and dreams for themselves and their grandkids,” Woolston said.
Donlin interviewed Morgan for the video. KYUK asked him if Donlin Gold sought his views on the mine for the video.
“No, no. This is just about the church, not about the mine,” Morgan said.
He is grateful for the possible employment.
“I think it will be good for, you know, with no jobs around here, it will help the area, the middle Kuskokwim area,” Morgan said.
But he’s also clear-eyed about the possible environmental consequences.
“There’s always caution,” Morgan said.
A mine accident could damage the Kuskokwim River, the main food source for villages like Chuathbaluk. In Chuathbaluk’s tribal office, Administrator Tracy Simeon is more reserved.
“How do I feel? I’m not against it or for it. I just don’t have no opinion right now,” Simeon said.
She also participated in the video. KYUK asked her if she worried that participating would damage her neutrality.
“No,” Simeon said.
Simeon and Morgan’s stance on the mine is very common in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. They are hopeful for the jobs, especially since they are more isolated from employment opportunities found in places like Bethel, but they also understand the risks from mining.
Like its tribal administrator, Chuathbaluk is neutral on the mine, and Morgan emphasizes that Donlin went above and beyond to help them renovate the church.
As for Donlin, it’s still gathering state permits and working on its dam safety certification — two major hurdles the company must overcome before it can start mining.
And that could be years away.