State upholds controversial permit for Donlin gold mine

Donlin runway and camp site in summer 2014.
The site of the proposed Donlin Mine, 145 miles northeast of Bethel. (Dean Swope/KYUK)

On May 27, the commissioner for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation chose to uphold a key state water quality certificate for the proposed Donlin Gold mine. The decision comes after an administrative law judge recommended that the DEC should not uphold the certificate in April.

In August 2018, the DEC issued a “certificate of reasonable assurance” to Donlin Gold that said that the state can count on the company’s operations to comply with water quality standards. The Army Corps of Engineers required the certificate before it issued its federal one. The Orutsararmiut Native Council challenged the certificate and passed a resolution opposing the mine. The tribe is based in Bethel, the largest community downriver from the proposed mine.

ONC tribal citizen Gloria Simeon said that DEC’s latest decision risks the health of people in the region and did not take into account the opposition from many of the tribes in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

“We have our work cut out for us,” said Simeon.

In April, Administrative Law Judge Kent Sullivan ruled that Donlin Gold’s mining operations would not guarantee a “reasonable assurance” that the mine would meet and maintain state environmental and water quality standards — specifically for mercury levels, water temperature and salmon habitat.

Sullivan said that the agency and Donlin Gold did not properly calculate the risk of mercury levels in the water. Donlin Gold is planning to build the mine in a mercury belt, where levels already exceed the state standards. Sullivan said that Donlin Gold and the agency were “tak[ing] the misguided approach resorting to sleight of hand” when they used a different calculation to justify the certificate.

Disturbing salmon habitat in Crooked Creek, a Kuskokwim River tributary near the mining operation, is another issue that the tribe is concerned with. Sullivan said that “salmon and salmon habitat in a large segment of Crooked Creek will be significantly and detrimentally impacted by the project.”

Sullivan’s recommendation to not uphold the state certificate potentially jeopardized the Corps’ federal permit, one of the major ones that Donlin Gold needs to operate. DEC Commissioner Jason Brune had the final say over whether to accept the recommendation. He chose to reject it.

In his decision, Brune said the analyses performed by federal and state agencies throughout the permitting process showed that the mining operations would meet state and federal environmental and water quality standards.

Donlin Gold applauded the decision. Donlin Gold spokesperson Kristina Woolston said, “Simply put, we will not operate the project without demonstrated compliance with the state’s water quality standards.”

Calista Corporation, which owns the mineral rights to the mine, also agreed with Brune’s decision.

Thirteen tribes in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta have passed resolutions opposing the mining project. During the 2019 convention of the Association of Village Council Presidents, 35 tribes voted to pass a resolution opposing Donlin Gold, citing possible environmental impacts to the Kuskokwim River.

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