YK Delta tribal consortium withdraws support for Donlin Gold mine

Donlin runway and camp site in summer 2014.
The proposed Donlin Gold mine would be one of the biggest gold mines in the world if completed. (Photo by Dean Swope/KYUK)

The Association of Village Council Presidents no longer supports the proposed Donlin Gold mine.

The decision came after two hours of passionate debate Wednesday, during the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta tribal consortium’s annual convention.

AVCP delegates overwhelmingly voted to withdraw a 2006 resolution supporting the mine, then voted to pass a separate resolution that opposes it. There were 41 delegates attending the convention.

The new resolution shows the mine has lost significant regional support from tribes.

Henry Hunter Sr., the chair of Bethel’s Orutsararmiut Native Council and its AVCP delegate, introduced the resolution. Hunter said that in back in 2006, many tribes didn’t understand the possible environmental risks, especially from Donlin Gold’s proposed tailings dam. Hunter said that this year, tribes came armed with more information about the risks of the proposed mine.

Donlin has to build a dam that would hold its mine waste forever. Hunter said that one of the biggest concerns is what would happen to the Kuskokwim River should the dam collapse. The company said that they plan to build the mine as safely as possible.

After the resolution was introduced, Wayne Morgan, Aniak’s delegate, asked to table it, which would have put it on hold for at least another year.

AVCP is a tribal consortium that represents 56 tribes and 48 villages in the YK Delta. Forty-one delegates attended the Wednesday morning session.

Last year, AVCP tabled two anti-Donlin resolutions because they were not submitted on deadline.

ONC tribal member Gloria Simeon said that moment shamed her, because she felt their voice was being suppressed.

“So we had to spend a year with ONC planning to make sure that we do not get knocked out by someone standing on procedure,” Simeon said.

But this year, the delegates passed both the resolution withdrawing AVCP’s support and another resolution from Quinhagak opposing the mine. Both resolutions will be sent to the Alaska Federation of Natives annual convention in October.

After the vote, Simeon walked out of the room, trembling. People hugged each other.

“It surprised me that it was so supported to pull and then to say to the world, ‘We are against Donlin,'” Simeon said. “That’s the power of our tribes speaking. That’s true leadership.”

Devron Hellings, the president of the Native Village of Napaimute, opposed both resolutions. Napaimute and Aniak are two of the villages closest to the proposed mine site, which would be built 145 miles up the Kuskokwim River from Bethel.

Hellings thinks that the mine can bring much-needed jobs to the region. She also said that she trusts the proposals Donlin has laid out on how it plans to build its mine.

“Donlin Gold has demonstrated they care about people of Western Alaska. They care about the culture, they know the reliance on subsistence, and we believe they are going to do what they say they will do,” Hellings said.

Hellings said that the reason she and Morgan pushed to table the motion was because their tribes did not have sufficient time to look at the resolutions. Hellings said that it can be difficult for tribes to meet, due to geography and technological challenges.

AVCP sent out the resolutions on Aug. 19; the convention was held Sept. 24. Hellings added that the new resolution opposing the mine doesn’t have much of an impact, since AVCP is “a social service entity.”

“The action in this regard by the body I can’t say holds as much weight as the decisions by individual tribes,” Hellings said.

She said that tribes hold the government-to-government relationship with the Donlin project that AVCP does not. Hellings said that Napaimute supports responsible natural resource development.

Darren Cleveland is the tribal council president of Quinhagak, which supported ONC’s efforts in opposing Donlin at the AVCP convention.

“Each village needs to state where they stand. Are they for it or are they against it? It’s no time to stand neutral. We have to hear everyone’s voice,” Cleveland said.

But how the delegates voted on the resolutions this year does show that Donlin Gold has lost significant support from tribes in the region.

In a two-page statement to KYUK, Donlin Gold laid out its efforts to meet with the 56 YK Delta tribes to hear their concerns over the past two decades.

“We are disappointed that the delegates at the convention of the Association of Village Council Presidents, a group we have long admired and supported, chose to oppose further development and the future operations of Donlin Gold, including its own Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy. We do, however, stand ready to address any and all concerns the convention delegates raised and work toward agreeable solutions,” the statement said.

Calista Corp., which owns the mineral rights, said that it will continue to work with shareholders to build support for the project.

“Calista Corp. respects the delegates at the 2019 AVCP convention. We also respect that a key component of both (the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act) and (the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act) is resource development,” said Tisha Kuhns, interim vice president of lands and natural resource development for Calista Corp.

Donlin is still gathering state permits and completing its dam safety certification. However, it is unclear when the company plans to start mining.

This story has been updated.

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