The Aniak Traditional Council unanimously voted to rescind its support for the proposed Donlin Gold mine over concerns about increased barge traffic on the Kuskokwim River. The tribe’s withdrawal removes a longtime pillar of support for the project. The mine’s landowners say they see the repeal as an opportunity to better understand and address community concerns.
The council’s repeal vote on Aug. 30 revokes its 2016 resolution to support the mine. But council Chief Wayne Morgan said that the body had unofficially supported the project for over a decade before that, since 1995. It wanted the potential jobs and economic benefits that the mine could bring. Now, Morgan says, that desire is overridden by concerns over the mine’s barge traffic.
“I really believe our river, Kuskokwim River, it’s a scenic river. It’s a wild river. And with the increased traffic on the river, I’d call it industrializing the river, it’s going to take away the wild and scenic part of that,” Morgan said.
Aniak is the largest community in the middle Kuskokwim. The town of about 500 people sits about 70 miles downstream from the proposed mine. To operate, Donlin would need a steady stream of materials, equipment, supplies, and diesel fuel.
From early June to early October, when the river is ice-free, much of those resources would arrive by barge, traveling 190 miles of river. Donlin plans to send one to two barges per day along the Kuskokwim River between Bethel and the mine, increasing summer barge trips by almost 200%. The traffic would last the length of the mine’s lifespan, projected at about 30 years, but it could run longer if more gold is found and as mining technology advances.
For Morgan, age 57, that’s longer than he expects to be alive.
“That’s too much to give and sacrifice on our end,” Morgan said.
Morgan predicts that the barge traffic will disrupt subsistence activities, jeopardizing people’s abilities to feed their families. For example, it’s currently moose hunting season, and Morgan said that the barge traffic could spook off moose before hunters can see them. Fishing is also a concern. The river narrows upstream, and to catch salmon, most people use gillnets stretched across the water.
“We’d have to wait until a barge passes and then try and fish. It’s going to put a burden on fishermen trying to get their subsistence foods in a limited amount of time,” Morgan said.
Also, he said, the wake caused by barges makes the river more difficult and more dangerous to navigate in small skiffs. Another concern for Morgan is any contamination the barges could cause if an accident, like a fuel spill, occurs. If the mine begins operations, he expects the barges to become many people’s main experience of it.
“Some people will never get to see the mine, but they’ll see it every day for 30 plus years on the river with the barges,” Morgan said.
The mine would be built on Native corporation land. The Kuskokwim Corporation owns the surface rights. Aniak is one of 10 middle and upper Kuskokwim River village corporations that compose The Kuskokwim Corporation and the first to take this type of action. The Kuskokwim Corporation President and CEO Andrea Gusty is an Aniak tribal member and said that she welcomes her tribal council’s concerns.
“It’s concerns that make the project better. It’s being skeptical, and diving into the details, and doing due diligence, and doing research,” Gusty said. “I mean, there’s a reason that development like this takes years and years and decades and decades.”
Calista Corporation is the other land owner. It owns the sub-surface rights. Vice President of Corporate Affairs Thom Leonard also framed Aniak’s concerns as a positive.
“If everyone was in support of the project, then I would be more worried, because then we wouldn’t be getting the feedback we need to make improvements and support our people,” he said.
Donlin External Affairs Manager Kristina Woolston pointed out how Donlin has adapted to address concerns about barge traffic in the past.
When an Aniak resident shared concerns over the traffic impacting smelt, Donlin began researching the fish and its habitat. When residents shared concerns over the number of daily barges transporting diesel fuel, Donlin proposed a plan to reduce the number by constructing an over 300-mile natural gas pipeline from Cook Inlet to the mine. Also, Donlin formed a Subsistence Community Advisory Committee and is accepting applications for the group.
Woolston sees Aniak’s repeal as another way the mining project can adapt while continuing to move forward.
“We appreciate the feedback, and we feel this is an ongoing opportunity to continue our robust discussion with the community of Aniak and its leaders, and throughout the region,” she said.
Though the Aniak Traditional Council rescinded its support for the Donlin Gold mine, it did not vote to oppose it. Fourteen tribes in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta have issued resolutions of opposition, along with tribal organizations that include the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation, the Association of Village Council Presidents, and the National Congress of American Indians.
Mother Kuskokwim Tribal Coalition is a new organization that formed this summer to advance tribal opposition to Donlin. When Director Sophie Swope heard that the project landowners were characterizing Aniak’s repeal as an opportunity to address concerns, she pushed back on that framing.
“Them talking about how it’s going to bring more robust and clear conversations, I don’t believe that is what it will bring. I just think it makes it more clear that they do not have the social license,” Swope said.
Morgan said that he could not predict if the Aniak Traditional Council would again support the mining project if it reduced its projected barge traffic.