The Bigger Picture – Economic Growth & Salmon Concerns: From Regional to State to National and Back Home To Our Backyard

It’s hard to believe that another year has come and gone…but here it is, the shorter days of December are upon once again.  That means it’s time for the Environmental Director’s annual perspective on the pros and cons of large-scale development in the Kuskokwim.

The big news since last year is that Nova Gold and Barrick have submitted their permit application with the expectation of proceeding forward with the Donlin Gold project; hence, the permitting phase with public involvement and everything that goes along with it has officially kicked in.  In other words, the long awaited Environmental Impact Statement process (a.k.a EIS) has begun.

If you’ve been following our website the past year you’ll know that I, along with other locals from up and down the Kuskokwim, toured two active mines this fall – Fort Knox outside of Fairbanks and the Golden Sunlight project near Whitehall, Montana.  Both trips were very informative and I’d recommend that if anyone has the chance to participate in similar tours to go because there’s no substitute for firsthand experience.

As mentioned in last year’s article there are known benefits to such economic development.  Although we didn’t see firsthand the contribution that the Fort Knox mine bestows to the regional economy, it must be a substantial shot in the arm since it employs over 400 people.  Our tour guides pointed out how many of Kinross’ employees are involved in community activities and contribute civically in one way or another; another definite plus.

The economic benefit of the Montana mine, however, was quite obvious for several reasons.  For starters, this classic western ranching community of Whitehall is much smaller than Fairbanks having a population of just over 1,000 people; consequently, much of the local economy is highly dependent on the mine because it employs roughly 200 people and requires the services of 70 contractors.  Our group sat in on a local community gathering where the residents, mostly long timers who tend to originally be from the area, had nothing but accolades to bequeath on the mine and its employees.  It seems that many of the employees are as much a part of the community as the community is a part of them.

During both tours it was noted that there are many similarities in the ongoing truck and shovel/open pit mining process at the two ongoing operations compared to what will be implemented at Donlin.  It was also noted, however, that all mines are different.  One substantial difference would be the footprint that would remain once the Donlin project was completed.  Until recently no one was certain, but it’s often been pointed out that the Donlin Gold project might be twice as large as Fort Knox.  Now that the exploration and feasibility work has been completed and the permit application been submitted, the magnitude of everything is apparent.  In fact, the particulars described in the Project Description do reflect what some in the industry claim could eventually be the world’s largest operating gold mine.

To put that into perspective, the footprint of the pit where the ore will come from is roughly the size of 66 Bethel runways put side by side; the Bethel airstrip is about 6,400 feet long and 150 feet wide.  The pit, which will start out as two separate pits but will eventually meld into one, is expected to be over 1,600 feet deep; that’s about half as high as the Russian Mountains are tall.  It’s expected to take more than 50 years for the pit to totally fill with water, which likely will then need to be treated in perpetuity (that is forever) so that toxic materials don’t enter Crooked Creek.

Here’s an excerpt from the Project Description (Vol I), “It is currently anticipated that the water on the surface of the pit lake would not meet water quality criteria for several parameters and thus would be treated before discharge into Crooked Creek. Water discharged from the pit would be managed by passing it through a post-closure High Density Sludge Process WTP [water treatment plant], where chemical precipitation technology would be applied to remove elements such as aluminum, antimony, arsenic, manganese, mercury, and selenium. The sludge from the WTP would be a chemically stable material that would be sent to the bottom of the pit lake for final storage.

Coming from that pit will be approximately 3 billion tons of waste rock (i.e., non gold-bearing rock), most of which will be disposed of somewhere on site with a fraction of it going back into the pit.  That somewhere on site is the waste rock facility (WRF), which will take up the same amount of area as 137 runways.  The estimated height of the waste rock facility is expected to reach upwards of 1,150 feet.

The amount of potentially acid-generating material from all that waste rock is around 7 percent, and by industry standards that isn’t very high.  In comparison, the vast majority of the ore mined from the Golden Sunlight mine had the potential to generate acid rock drainage.  But considering that 3 billion tons mentioned above, 7 percent adds up to a pretty good heap.

The tailings storage facility where the processed ore containing mercury and potentially acid-generating material will be impounded will be equivalent to 107 runways.  Contrary to what many think, tailings ponds comprise mostly sand and silt-sized particles that underlie a relatively thin layer of water.  The dam holding all this back will be 460-foot high and over one-mile long.

The port facility on the shores of the Kuskokwim River downstream of the village of Crooked Creek at Jungjuk Creek and other proposed activities neighboring lower Crooked Creek will have a footprint of around 44 runways (696 acres).  The port facility will consist of barge berths, a barge ramp, container handling equipment, container storage areas and one temporary 2.8 million gallon diesel fuel storage tank. The other activities include 7 material sites with access roads, a Crooked Creek laydown site for the storage of miscellaneous construction equipment, and a lower Crooked Creek winter road and water extraction access point.

The total acreage of land disturbed by the proposed Donlin Gold project surrounding the general mine site (excluding the disturbance of that which is associated with the natural gas pipeline) is 9,976 acres…or roughly 630 Bethel airport runways.

Other than size, one substantial difference between those projects I toured in Montana and near Fairbanks is the proximity of land disturbing activities and potentially toxic byproducts in regard to a large and regionally important water body like the Kuskokwim River.  Fuel transport of large quantities of diesel fuel via barge is just one example of an environmental concern that could negatively affect our subsistence dependent lifestyle, particularly with salmon and other aquatic related resources.  And although strict standards for transporting cyanide supposedly will be followed, that is another issue specific to the Donlin Gold project.

Besides the concerns for maintaining water quality not only during the mine’s life and forever after, one big unknown, which in many ways is associated with the magnitude of the project and the amount of waste rock generated, is how much mercury may be introduced into the surrounding environment.  The consequences of this could not only affect subsistence resources like fishes, wildlife and berries and other plants, but those of us who rely on those foods.

The EPA estimates that between 25 and 50 percent of mercury in the global environment comes from natural processes like volcanic and ocean emissions and erosion from rocks containing mercury; what isn’t natural comes from human activities like large industrial boilers and coal-fired power plants and things like gold mines.

Although Barrick has developed a state-of-the-art technique to reduce the mercury emissions generated through the milling processes, it’s possible that fugitive emissions wafting off the waste rock and tailings may contribute substantial amounts into the environment.  Currently the state only requires mine operators to address the mercury emanating from the milling operation where it is released from the autoclave, carbon kiln, gold furnaces and retort facilities when the ore is subjected to high levels of heat.

So to reiterate what I said last year, there are benefits with the Donlin Gold project, but the flip side is that with any large-scale projects there will also be some consequences.  Subsequently, it’s important for all interested parties to be as informed as possible and be involved in the process – that being the Environmental Impact Statement process (EIS).


I would now like to point a few things out in a bigger context than just the Kuskokwim drainage by looking across the state at other proposed large-scale development projects…but then tie those back to Kuskokwim concerns.

Before I go any further I’ll state that each one of us has a unique perspective, or paradigm, on life and the events that occur around us.  Much of my perspective is shaped from my experiences years ago while in Wyoming and Idaho dealing with contentious fish issues.  In Wyoming many of the native cutthroat trout subspecies are in decline…but they’ve been declining for much of the past 100 years.  In Idaho and the rest of the Pacific Northwest threats to fishes like bull trout (which are cousins to our Dolly Varden), steelhead (ocean going rainbow trout) and salmon only seem to be getting worse although some inroads have been made (at great expense several dams that blocked salmon migration have recently been removed).

Wild silver salmon have been extinct in Idaho for some time while in some years you can literally count the number of returning sockeye salmon on one hand.  These red salmon must negotiate a river system that is now laden with hydroelectric dams on their arduous journey that takes them 900-miles on an uphill climb of over 6,500 feet in elevation to a lake named after them – Redfish Lake.  Biologists estimate that over 35,000 fish once converged upon Redfish Lake, so it was aptly named.  I’m an optimist by nature, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that someday there may be no wild naturally reproducing red fish in Redfish Lake.

Between 1993 and 1996 I lived near the Salmon River where those relict sockeye salmon migrated past, and I think of them often.  Every day I look at a picture on my wall from the carcasses of the four loners that made it back in 1991.  After stripping the eggs and sperm from those fish, hatchery biologists used the ancient Japanese art form of gyotaku fish painting to at least preserve them forever on paper.  I’m grateful for those biologists, for they knew just how special those fish were because they represented a unique legacy possibly lost forever.

A few more wild ones returned following 1991, but for the most part the sockeye returning today to Redfish Lake are raised in a hatchery environment.

Because of my background, I’ve thought long and hard over the past few years about the recent declines in king salmon of the Kuskokwim and Yukon Rivers.  I think back to 1998 when I moved to Bethel, which was the beginning of a period of poor returns.  Until recently, the year 2000 was one of the lowest escapements on record.  Fortunately and to my delight, the kings rebounded several years later but now we see another cyclical dip…although this one appears lower than anything ever seen before.

So what is going on?

Nature’s variability generates natural fluctuations in animal populations – no one needs to be told that.  In looking at the best available scientific data, most biologists contend that what we are seeing are significant fluctuations in the ocean’s productivity levels, often the result of something called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO).  However, there are other more wide-ranging happenings like climate change at work that are affecting such critical habitat-related components as sea surface temperatures and ice patterns that can have cascading effects on the food chain.

If all that isn’t enough to consider and make one shudder, one very large-scale challenge that fishes and other aquatic organisms are facing is the threat of ocean acidification…which could have far-reaching implications.  The concern for salmon and other similar fishes are not necessarily from direct consequences, but indirect through the food they eat.  Impacts to the smaller crustaceans like shrimp and shrimp-like organisms (e.g., krill) will have a ripple affect throughout the food chain.  For instance, krill are fed upon by salmon and herring while some adult salmon eat herring and some adult herring eat young salmon.  Krill, often only two inches long, are also consumed in mass quantities by the baleen whales (i.e., blue, humpback, gray and right).

The king salmon I worked with in Idaho were considered either threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act – the result of habitat loss, degradation, or alteration…all of which were human caused.  Fortunately, no Alaska salmon stocks are likely to need threatened or endangered species status any time soon because for the most part – Alaskan habitat is pretty much intact.  But environmental concerns and controversies dealing with salmon are mounting – the Pebble Mine and bycatch to name a few.

In many cases the controversies are the result of a conflict between habitat protection and some form of economic development.  One consequence that often comes along with economic development or economic growth is a growth in human population, which often puts additional pressures on fishes and other animals not only through concomitant habitat alteration or degradation, but direct harvest pressures (with over 1,000 workers at the Donlin Gold project – up to 2,500 during construction – there’s got to be some additional fishing pressure on the subsistence resources).

What’s another contentious debate that Alaska is facing that deals with salmon and its habitat?  It’s the proposed Susitna hydroelectric project, another very large endeavor.  Although I’ve heard it casually said by dam proponents that the dam would only directly affect a small number of salmon that spawn above the proposed site, there will be direct impacts to salmon of all life stages downstream of the dam because of altered stream flows.  Those altered flows not only affect the quantity of water flowing through the system, but the seasonal water temperatures will not coincide with the natural patterns and the unnatural flows have the potential to drastically alter channel characteristics vital to optimal juvenile rearing; among other things (i.e., the formation of islands and the composition and compaction of the gravel substrates).

The list of threats to salmon and other fishes just seems to be growing.  Next time you’re in Anchorage look across Cook Inlet and you can see where the proposed Chuitna surface coal mine is planned.  This project, if it proceeds as designed, will have a substantial effect on the local ecosystem.  For starters, approximately 11 miles of stream will be totally disrupted and stripped down to bedrock…in some places several hundred feet down.  However, industry representatives claim that those streams can and will be restored, but my time in Idaho dealing with habitat issues has shown me that if you churn up a stream to the nth degree you will not be able to bring it back to its original productive state.  No, not anywhere near the natural productivity level.

One other industry official told me that he saw coho salmon spawning in a road ditch; insinuating that they can spawn anywhere!  Well attempting to spawn is one thing, but having eggs develop and juveniles rear successfully is something totally different.  Developing eggs need very specific conditions, generally upwelling of water through the gravel to provide oxygen and remove metabolic wastes.

In testimony before a legislative committee, Dr. Margaret Palmer, a fish habitat and stream restoration specialist concluded, “the impacts will be irreversible simply because the reclamation is not technologically feasible”.  I certainly hope the legislators heed her counsel.

In contrast to the several hundred foot depth of disturbance from the proposed Chuitna project, this stream, Red River in Idaho, had bedrock that was only 10 feet below the channel. Although a hydrologist trained in stream restoration designed this reclamation and large woody debris was added, it's nowhere near a natural condition.

What other pressures are Alaska’s aquatic resources facing?

Do you know that Alaska freshwater will soon be shipped to countries as far away as Asia?  How many people recall back when Governor Hickel proposed to pipe Alaska water to California?  How crazy did that sound to some at the time?

In one fairly recent report issued by the International Forum on Globalization, they refer to Canada and Alaska as the potential OPECs of water (OPEC stands for the Organization for Petroleum Exporting Countries and is made up of Middle Eastern, African and South American countries.).  One Alaska entrepreneur, who once worked for the Department of Interior in the public sector where he contributed to shaping water policy, is now anticipating on the need for water from places as far away as Saudi Arabia, Tanzania, and Taiwan.  He contends that, “Everything from soft drinks to French wine to microchips will get many times more expensive to produce and more environmentally destructive than bulk water shipments in tankers and water bags.” (Barlow)

It seems we can’t rule anything out!

Due to the high cost of electricity across the state, especially rural areas, there has been are a myriad of relatively small scale hydroelectric projects proposed across the state – many of which have the potential to also negatively affect fish populations.

Here in the Kuskokwim, the Kisaralik River was recently considered a candidate for hydroelectric power generation, but the idea of building the dam was dropped because the project was deemed unfeasible…at least for generating power during the winter months.  That was not the first time that that idea had come up, however; it was rekindled after some 30 years from its initial inception.

With the onset of most development comes the need for water, and that is why Napaimute began collecting stream flow data on the Holokuk River this past summer.  Someday there may be a desire to dam it up for hydropower, or to remove its water to support activities like mining of some sort.  In order to be ahead of the curve, the Kuskokwim Watershed Council and other regional villages should consider doing the same for all our rivers.

In regards to development I’m not the only one concerned.  There are a growing number of biologists and scientists who’ve documented how development and its associated human impacts have reduced biological diversity and placed relentless pressures on fish and wildlife, particularly aquatic species.  In a study conducted by the National Academy of Sciences (committees composed of the nation’s top scientists that provide advice to Congress & other elected officials) on the salmon declines of the Pacific Northwest, it was determined that economic development and population growth greatly contributed to those widespread declines.  The National Research Council (NRC) concludes that, “As long as human populations and economic activities continue to increase, so will the challenge of successfully solving the salmon problem.” (NRC 1996).

To put that into perspective, the Columbia River system that is the foundation of the Pacific Northwest salmon runs, once had upwards of 16 million wild (i.e., non-hatchery) salmon and steelhead annually return to spawn – now there are less than 500,000.

A separate group of scientists have come to the conclusion that there is a fundamental conflict between economic growth and fish conservation.  These biologists point out that although there are desirable effects of economic growth, the production and consumption of human goods and services can’t usually increase without a decrease in fish and wildlife populations (Czech et al. 2004).

Closer to home, I just recently I read a 1996 paper from two Department of Fish and Game biologists titled Can Alaska Balance Economic Growth with Fish Habitat Protection?  A Biologist’s Perspective.  Here is an excerpt: Similar taming of Alaska’s rivers is not only possible but probable as resource extraction and other uses expand.  Because of Alaska’s size and its comparatively recent development, when one looks at Alaska as a whole, it is easy to miss the subtle changes to the resource base that are taking place.  However, if one looks more closely, the increasing urbanization of Alaska and the growing use of non-renewable resources parallels the situation on the Columbia.  In fast growing urban areas, such as Anchorage, the loss of salmon and stream resources are most evident.  Even in more rural areas, however, salmon habitat is being lost at an increasing rate.  Where man treads, the historical patterns remain clear: little regard for fish over short-term self interests.  While we speak today of balancing resource development and economic growth, in truth there is little balance, and aquatic production too rarely enters the discussions.

I’ve heard it said that sometimes an insight must be repeated, repeated, repeated, and one of my concerns with the Donlin Gold project is what it – particularly its infrastructure – may bring in the future.  A big reason we’ve had relatively minimal mineral development in our little corner of the world is our lack of infrastructure.  That’s not to say that we haven’t already experienced some reduction with historic activities – the NYAC dredging of the Tuluksak River drastically altered many miles of stream channel to where it now doesn’t consistently produce the salmon it used to.

With modern infrastructure in place, many of the marginally economic ventures of the past could become more feasible.  Not that that’s necessarily bad, but it could be a double-edged sword.  Keep in mind that there was a fair amount of exploration in the upper Aniak River drainage and other regional streams this past summer.  Much like the Chuitna coal project, they just might have direct impacts on fish habitat.

Given the concerns mentioned previously about climate change and natural downturns in productivity, the direct human-related impacts only create a double whammy on already stressed fish populations.

Trust me, I don’t want to sound like Chicken Little who went around yelling, “The sky is falling, the sky is falling!”  I’m not saying that we shouldn’t proceed with economic opportunities like the Donlin Gold project or any of those other projects across the State, but residents of The Last Frontier need to proceed with open eyes, understand the tradeoffs, and truly consider the next 7 Generations and beyond.

Yes, development would create more jobs and put food on many people’s tables, but I’ll conclude this newsletter the exact same way I concluded last year’s – THERE ARE NO FREE LUNCHES.


 Barlow, Maude.  Third World Traveler.  The Global Trade in Water.

Czech, B., P. Angermeier, H. Daly, P. Pister, and R. Hughes.  2004. Fish Conservation, sustainable fisheries, and economic growth: no more fish stories.  Fisheries, vol. 29 no. 8.  American Fisheries Society.

(NRC) National Research Council.  1996.  Upstream: Salmon and society in the Pacific Northwest.  National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.

Tarbox, Ken and Terry Bendock.  1996. Alaska Fishery Research Bulletin 3(1):49-53.  Alaska Department of Fish & Game.


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