Pros & Cons of Large-Scale Mining In The Kuskokwim (2014 Edition)

Wow, another year has swiftly flown by.  It’s hard to believe – isn’t it…and February is already more than half over?

What that means for us here with Napaimute is the annual Pros & Cons of Large Scale Development article; we’ve been doing it now for the past several years and highlighting the proposed Donlin Gold project.  You might be wondering what the status of that project is because other than the bi-monthly Donlin Gold newsletters many of us get in the mail and the weekly ads in the Delta Discovery, you don’t hear a whole lot about it.  However, there is actually quite a bit happening – it’s just going on behind the scenes; so much so, in fact, that it’s actually hard to keep up with it all.

As you’re probably aware, the EIS or Environmental Impact Statement process officially kicked in a little over a year ago in November of 2012.  You probably recall the public scoping process that took place in early 2013 when the various agencies (i.e., Army Corps of Engineers, EPA, Alaska Dept. of Natural Resources, etc.) visited numerous villages within the Kuskokwim, Kuskokwim Bay, several coastal villages and even a few Yukon River villages with the intent of collecting input from local residents.

If so, you might be wondering what ever happened to those concerns or statements of support that were expressed during those meetings or submitted later on in writing?  Well, the lead agency, the Corps of Engineers has been working with the contractor – URS Corporation – along with a host of Cooperating Agencies to evaluate what information gaps might exist that need to be considered to adequately assess all the foreseeable implications of such a massive undertaking.

The Cooperating Agencies include: the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), US Fish & Wildlife Service, Alaska Department of Natural Resources, Alaska Department of Fish & Game, the Tribe of Knik, the Village of Chuathbaluk, the Village of Crooked Creek, the Village of Lower Kalskag, the Native Village of Napaimute and most recently the Aniak Traditional Council – among a few others.

Here’s a brief overview of the proposed project: a 300-mile natural gas pipeline from Cook Inlet to the mine site to provide power generation, two port facilities on the Kuskokwim (one in Bethel and the other below Crooked Creek at Jungjuk Cr), a 30-mile road from the Jungjuk port to the mine site, an open pit mine approximately 2.2 miles long by 1 mile wide (an area equivalent to the size of 66 Bethel runways) that will be 1,800 feet deep, a waste rock facility with a total footprint of 3.5 square miles, a tailings storage facility equivalent to approximately 107 Bethel runways in size and a dam 460 feet high holding back the generated tailings.

During the mine’s construction phase, which will take several years, the vast majority of the construction materials and operational equipment will be barged up the river.  Once the mine is up and running, barges will eventually transport a little over 1 million gallons of diesel fuel every day or roughly 46 million gallons each season; fuel storage facilities are planned for Bethel with a capacity of 6 million gallons and 2.8 million for the Jungjuk Creek port.

Obviously, travel on the Kuskokwim is seasonal, whether it be by boat in the summer or snow machines in the winter.  Once the mine is operational, the barging is expected to begin as soon as the river ice has moved past Bethel, which can often be two weeks before Kuskokwim Bay is ice free; so one could expect to see barges navigating the river immediately after ice out.

 What Are The Pros?

The Donlin Gold project would be big – just how big you might ask?  The total footprint of the proposed mine – and all related facilities – will be around 16,000 acres, which, if you are familiar with football would be roughly equivalent to 16,000 football fields (i.e., from goal line to goal line – does not include the end zones).  According to Greg Lang, Nova Gold CEO, it is, “the world’s largest known high-grade undeveloped open-pit gold deposit.”

It’s anticipated that the construction phase will take a labor force of 2,500 people, many of who will be local.  Once the mine is up and running the work force would then shrink to between 600 and 1,000.  I accentuated the word shrink because the Donlin Gold mine, while in production, would still be the second largest employer in the region next to YKHC; the Health Corp employs around 1,500 employees.

In economics there is a term called the ripple effect where the impact of a given event transmits through a community often creating an economic web that can stimulate the local economy.  There have been arguments about how much of the money generated by the mine would stay in the region, or even the United States since both Barrick and Nova Gold are Canadian companies, but as far as local economic infusion…it would be substantial.

Considering the economic benefits, there would be obvious improvement in services in places like Bethel, Aniak and Crooked Creek.  Considering that ripple effect, it would allow these and other communities to possibly thrive rather than stagnate like some of the non-hub villages seem to be doing (many villagers are moving to Bethel, Anchorage or other places).  The villages between Crooked Creek and Bethel would certainly experience an economic shot in the arm, as well as probably most of the Y-K Delta villages where the likelihood of one or more of their residents being employed by Donlin Gold is rather good.  No one has to be told that there are limited job opportunities around here and one really bright spot is that having a secure job definitely contributes to high self-esteem – this could lead to fewer social problems.

If created, a borough would bring revenues directly to the region like we’ve never seen before.

What Are The Tradeoffs & Is There Any Such Thing As A Free Lunch?

No one wants to see the environment damaged – particularly on the subsistence resources we are so dependent upon – and that includes those working for Donlin Gold, many of whom live among us.  Everyone is hopeful that, “it is accomplished responsibly and with the safety of the environment as its highest priority.”  That is just one of the quotes given by local residents that regularly appears in the newspapers and other media.  Here’s what two other folks were quoted to have said in regards to the mine’s development:  “I do support economic development as long as it is done soundly and carefully and with a lot of care for the environment.” while the other expressed support for the project as long as, “they abide by the EPA guidelines, etc.”

Each day the KYUK birthday call-in show is partly sponsored by Donlin Gold where the announcer states that Donlin Gold is committed to creating a safe and environmentally responsible project.  Once again, we can all agree on that as a goal, but does that mean that there will be no negative impacts?  Unfortunately, it does not.

Look ahead thirty or more years from now once all the gold has been removed (or all the gold that is worth removing) and the operation closes down, it’s anticipated to take 50 years for the gigantic pit to fill with water, at which time the water will most likely need to be treated and monitored forever…or in mining parlance – for perpetuity.

Here’s an excerpt from Volume 1 of the Project Description:  “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.

Water treatment would be necessary because much of the waste rock (some having the potential to be acid generating) and mine tailings are expected to be placed in the pit and water draining from the tailing storage facility will also be diverted there.  In addition, sections of the pit walls might have acid generating potential.

The Known Cons

So the Environmental Impact Statement process or EIS is chugging along at a rapid clip attempting to assess these and other the potential impacts in an effort to lessen the chance of occurrence.

There are however, several certainties that are bound to happen because it is impossible not to have some ecological impacts with such a large-scale land-disturbing endeavor with its accompanying far-reaching facets.  One such impact is the introduction of invasive plant species.  Surprisingly, it was not long ago that Alaska botanists and ecologist didn’t think that our state had much to worry about concerning any invasive species…but now they know better (Carlson and Shepard 2007).  The immediate concern here in Alaska is that the spread of invasive organisms is the second leading cause of the loss of natural biological diversity, and that spread is only increasing as human societies become more mobile.  Lassuy and Lewis (2011) note that, “Much of that increased risk of invasion may come from increased shipping, energy development, mineral exploration and associated shore-based developments such as ports, roads and pipelines.”

The most obvious potential source of unwanted plant introductions with the proposed Donlin Gold project is the 300-mile gas pipeline coming from Cooke Inlet even though it will mostly be buried; the reason being that there will be 300 miles of freshly disturbed ground which is a haven for invasive plants if a seed source is not too far away.  Unfortunately, there are already several invasive plants on the Iditarod Trail, and the pipeline route either parallels or follows the trail for some distance.  Another likely reason is that the pipeline’s origin is just across from the inlet where there are already a multitude of invasive plants already established.

A map showing known infestations throughout the state.

A map showing known infestations throughout the state.

Note the sequential dots coming off the Alaska Range south of McGrath and progressing northwesterly toward Nome – these are documented locations of invasives already found along the Iditarod Trail brought in with the straw bales used to bed the sled dogs down, so there is bound to be more coming with the onset of the pipeline construction and its substantial ground disturbing activities as it heads south and west on its way to the mine site.

Two other likely locations include the port sites planned for Bethel and Jungjuk Creek; beyond those, any disturbed areas within the footprint of the mine itself and the road from Jungjuk Creek to the mine, more than likely, have the potential to have invasive plants eventually popping up.

Another vector with a high probability of bringing invasive plants include that heavy equipment that will be transported in from far away places – even if brand new – could harbor hitchhiker seeds on their tires and undercarriages.  If that machinery has been somewhere else where invasive plants are common, the threat is always there.  No one can say for sure which invasive plants are likely to invade, or where or when they’ll pop up – but the unfortunate reality is that there is no keeping them totally out.

An existing source of the spread of invasive plants - heavy equipment from locations with infestations.

An existing source of the spread of invasive plants – heavy equipment from locations with infestations.

But the concern is not only for invasive plants coming in and getting established on the freshly disturbed ground within the mine’s footprint.  As pointed out, invasives reduce biological diversity, and numerous noxious weeds – if dispersed throughout the region – have the potential to compete against some of the local berries and other subsistence foods items.

One other obvious effect that comes to mind and is more local in regards to the mine itself will be the water withdrawal from Crooked Cr.  Depending on the time of year and climatic conditions, Crooked Creek will see the loss of up to 25 percent less water (at least some sections of the creek) that will reduce its productivity potential to an unknown degree.  In regards to king salmon, that may not seem too significant to some considering that the king run is very small compared to other tributaries, but in these years of poor returns it is cause for concern.  The weir on Crooked Creek passed 100 kings in 2009, and the numbers have been decreasing ever since; in 2012 only 29 kings were noted passing the weir.  That shouldn’t be unexpected with the declines we’ve seen throughout the Kuskokwim drainage; for instance, the George River weir passed 3,663 in 2009 but only 2,302 in 2012.  Every weir project scattered throughout the entire Kuskokwim system counted the lowest numbers of king salmon on record this past summer.

The major reason for this recent downward trend is believed to be that ocean conditions have not been favorable for the kings since their numbers are down pretty much throughout the state.  We’ve seen declines over the past few decades with eventual good returns (e.g., 1998-2004); we’re just hoping and waiting for more productive ocean conditions in the future.  But if the mine were to proceed while Crooked Creek’s numbers were still depressed, less water in Crooked Creek would make it that much harder for the population to rebound.

One other certainty associated with the development of the mine, although it’s not known to what extent it would occur, is that the increased barge traffic will disrupt subsistence fishing activities especially if severe fishing restrictions are put in place to help conserve the dwindling numbers of kings.

As has been pointed out in previous articles, there will definitely be some tradeoffs; people just need to be aware of what they are in order to make informed decisions.  As elder George N. Billy stated in Donlin Gold’s 2012 calendar, “As I observe these [project] meetings, I feel that while there is risk involved, I think that whatever the outcome, there is an unforeseen journey given to us from the creators.”

Now The Potential & Unforeseen Cons

A worst-case scenario would be a tailings dam failure where countless tons of toxic material would wind up in Crooked Creek, then be transported on down into the Kuskokwim.  Something like this would not only affect the salmon and other species that are found below Crooked Creek, but also the migratory fishes that travel well beyond Crooked Creek.

Another possible concern that could manifest itself beyond most of our lifetimes would be a malfunction in the water treatment plant that is expected to treat the water exiting the pit for the rest of time; it goes without saying, treating water forever is a long time…especially without an equipment breakdown.

There is then a potential legacy, and it wouldn’t be a good one, that future generations would never forgive us if something catastrophic like those two scenarios would happen.  Granted, Donlin Gold’s engineers will design the project to minimize the potential for those occurrences, but the possibility will always be there.

Speaking of unforeseen, something to keep in mind as one considers the possibility of proceeding with such a large-scale, long-term and expensive to operate mine is how certain the future is for its full development, its execution and planned closure…and that something goes way beyond the scope of the EIS that is currently being conducted.

When mining companies give presentations to investors and other interested parties, they cover their behinds with legal statements and disclaimers like the common forward-looking clauses.  These statements often read something like: When used, the words potential, anticipate, forecast, believe, estimate, expect, may, project, plan and similar expressions are intended to be among the statements that identify forward-looking statements.  Forward-looking statements are subject to a variety of known and unknown risks, uncertainties and other factors that could cause actual events or results to differ from those reflected in the forward-looking statements, including, without limitation: uncertainty of whether there will ever be production at the company’s mineral exploration and development properties, etc.

And those forward-looking statements are followed by the No Warranty clause which goes something like – although the facts and information presented here are believed to be correct and attempts to keep this information as current as possible, we do not warrant or make any representations as to the accuracy, validity, or completeness of any facts or information.

So when it comes to mining, the crystal ball can be as foggy as a late fall morning on the middle Kuskokwim.  The biggest player in all this is the price of gold and how it fluctuates.  Currently there is a downturn in the value of the precious metal.  If you’ve been watching the news lately, the Pebble Partnership has been regularly making headlines.  At least one of Pebble’s two big backers has pulled out of the partnership, and the other is considering following the same path.  If that’s the case, the junior mining will be going it alone for now.

One executive with the junior mining company had this to say,  “The global minerals industry is facing serious financial challenges today, as a result of scarce capital, weaker commodity prices and investor dissatisfaction.  But mining is a notoriously cyclical business, such that the next great surge in mineral commodity prices and mining investment is being sown in the current bear market environment.”

According to investment websites, the cyclical nature of the industry has resulted in some big shakeups lately.  Surprising to some, this economic downturn even affected the world’s largest company – Barrick Gold, part owner in the Donlin project.  In some investment circles there was a fair amount of hype when Barrick’s founder and longtime Chairman announced he would be stepping down this coming spring.  And recently Barrick announced that several of its projects – including the Donlin Gold project – no longer meet its investment criteria.  Contributing to the supposed shakeup is the fact that Barrick’s stock has lost half of its value over the last year; hence, many investors thought a change was in order.

The recent downturn in gold prices.

The recent downturn in gold prices.

And here’s the BIG concern with the highly volatile unknown:

The success of the Donlin Gold project progressing from development to operation to scheduled closing and full reclamation is totally contingent on the mining companies making a profit – from start to finish (other than the startup costs).  If a drastic drop in gold prices should occur and sufficient money is not being made through the mine’s operation to keep the shareholders content (investors don’t invest to lose money), and the price of gold doesn’t look like it will rebound in the foreseeable future – whatever promises about environmental responsibility have been made to the folks of the region – the companies will pull out and likely leave the region with some troublesome environmental consequences.  This, we’re afraid, will make us much less happier than those corporate shareholders…and that is an understatement if there ever was one.


Carlson, M. L. and M. Shephard. 2007. Is the spread of non-native plants in Alaska accelerating? In: Meeting the challenge: invasive plants in Pacific Northwest ecosystems, Portland, OR. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station, En. Tech. Rep. PNW-GTR-694: 111-127.

Lassuy, D.R., and Patrick Lewis.  Invasive species: Human-Induced (Ch. 16).  Arctic Biodiversity Assessment.

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