Three Southwest Alaska Native tribes sue federal government, seeking to block gold mine

Yago Jacob of Napaskiak, one of the Calista shareholders employed at the Donlin Mine, holds up a sliced piece of a geological core on Aug. 11. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

Three Alaska Native tribes, with the help of the environmental law firm Earthjustice, sued the federal government on Tuesday, seeking to block development of a large gold mine in Southwest Alaska.

In a 29-page complaint filed in U.S. District Court, they claim various federal agencies improperly permitted the Donlin Gold Mine.

Specifically, they allege that officials failed to properly analyze the environmental impact if there were to be a failure of a planned dam that would hold back the mine waste, known as tailings.

In addition, they allege that officials failed to correctly determine the mine’s impact on the Kuskokwim River, and failed to take into account the effects of the mine on the health of area residents.

“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,” said Walter Jim, chairman of the Orutsararmiut Native Council, in a written statement announcing the lawsuit.

The Orutsararmiut Native Council, Organized Village of Kwethluk and the Tuluksak Native Community are the three plaintiffs in the case.

The federal government has not yet replied to the lawsuit.

Donlin is being developed by Donlin Gold, a joint project by two mining firms, NovaGold and Barrick Gold Corp., on land owned by the regional Native corporation, Calista, and the Kuskokwim Corp., the joint Native village corporation for 10 communities in the region.

At full capacity, the mine would produce about 1 million troy ounces of gold annually, Donlin Gold told the state in 2016. That would make it one of the largest gold mines in the world. The mine plan also includes construction of a natural gas pipeline from Cook Inlet and supporting infrastructure, including a large camp and airstrip.

In response to the lawsuit, Donlin Gold issued a written statement that said federal litigation “is ubiquitous and expected” on major projects.

“Donlin Gold’s stakeholders fully believe that this lawsuit is meritless and are confident the actual record will once again fully support the agencies’ decisions. In the meantime, the Donlin Gold team and the owners continue to advance remaining state permitting, as well as drilling and technical work,” the statement said in part.

It isn’t yet clear whether the state of Alaska will seek to intervene in the lawsuit. It has done so in defense of other major development projects within the state.

“As this was just filed, we are in the process of reviewing the case and will determine what sort of involvement the state should have,” said Patty Sullivan, a special assistant to Attorney General Treg Taylor and a spokesperson for the Alaska Department of Law.

This story originally appeared in the Alaska Beacon and is republished here with permission.

Alaska Beacon

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and Twitter.

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