Donlin Gold EIS Update – Bethel Presentation And Call-In Show By The Corps Of Engineers

The Army Corps of Engineers will give a public presentation on the latest happenings of the Donlin Gold EIS project tonight (May 22) at 6:00 PM at the ONC multi-purpose building in Bethel (a.k.a. the old bowling alley).

The Corps will present a summary of the scoping comments collected recently during the initial scoping phase.

There will also be a call-in show on KYUK Thursday at 2:00 PM where the Corps will answer questions the public has.  For those not in the local area, you can live stream the show at KYUK’s website ( – just click on the stream button.

Here are a few of the slides that will be presented at tonight’s meeting depicting some of the concerns expressed during the scoping process.


Donlin Gold Scoping Meeting Comments For St. Marys, Emmonak, Holy Cross & Kipnuk Available

You can find scoping meeting comments for the villages of St. Marys, Emmonak, Holy Cross and Kipnuk at the following link:

The first round of scoping officially ended on March 29th.  However, the draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) is expected to come out in August of 2014.  The draft should address the issues that arose during this initial comment period.

You will still have a chance to comment once the DEIS is released next summer so follow the progress on the official Donlin Gold EIS website at


Summaries Available For The Nunapitchuk & Akiak Donlin Gold EIS Scoping Meetings

The summaries for the two meetings that recently occurred in the Lower Kuskowkim are now on the official Donlin Gold EIS website at


Nunap –


Akiak –

Summaries Of Four Donlin Gold EIS Scoping Meetings Are Available

The summaries for the scoping meetings held in Bethel, Aniak, Crooked Creek and Anchorage are available on the official EIS website at


Here are the links:

Aniak Comments From The January 15 Donlin Gold EIS Public Scoping Meeting

Over 40 people attended the first scoping meeting for the Donlin Gold EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) in Aniak last week.  A scoping team comprised of the Army Corps of Engineers and URS, a third party contractor, facilitated the meeting.  Also in attendance were numerous cooperating agencies such as the BLM, Alaska DEC, Fish & Wildlife Service, the Native Village of Chuathbaluk and the Native Village of Napaimute.

Several issues were brought up – which is the purpose of those meetings.  The intent of the EIS process is to identify and document the public’s concerns – then as the process moves along those concerns are to be incorporated into the draft EIS where solutions or mitigation measures are identified.  If those bringing up the concerns don’t feel the solutions or mitigation measures are adequate to alleviate the concerns, interested parties can further comment prior to the final document; with the hope of eliminating or minimizing any detrimental effects.

There was some confusion as to whether or not general questions asked early on during the meeting and concerns expressed would be part of the official record, because there was official testimony scheduled at the end of the meeting.  The scoping team noted that all comments were part of the official record and would be incorporated into or addressed in the EIS process.

One of the issues brought up by a former barge captain was the effect of increased barge traffic on subsistence activities and resources.  It was noted by the scoping team that, on average, wherever your location on the river that you would see three barges – most likely one up and two down, or vise versa – each day of the barging season.

People wondered how increased barging traffic would affect subsistence fishing and bank erosion.

It was also noted that during low water years there are places on the river that a typical four-barge tow could not make it through.  If that’s the case, two of the barges will have to be broken up and left behind while the other two navigated through the tight spot.  Then the other two barges will be maneuvered through the tight spot and reconnected with the others.

It was asked whether or not any dredging might be needed, with the concern that dredging would disrupt habitat on the river bottom.

The URS representative noted that a transportation plan was not yet completed and will be posted on web site when it is.


Someone expressed concern for the natural gas pipeline where it crossed rivers – particularly the Kuskokwim.  He was concerned that the pipeline would be too close to the river bottom where erosion could undermine the pipeline.

The same person noted that fuel storage tanks are not required to have containment facilities that will contain all the contents, and if one were to rupture petroleum projects would then get into the waterways.  (The tank at the Jungjuk Creek port site has a 2.8 million gallons capacity.)

Someone stated that they heard rumors from a state agency that fuel oil would initially be piped through the natural gas pipeline.  The scoping team stated that the permit for the mine is very specific and binding and that Donlin Gold could not pull a “bait-and-switch” by transporting something different than natural gas.  (The concern implied here is that a fuel oil leak is much more problematic from an ecological standpoint than a natural gas leak.)

One attendee asked if villages could hook into the natural gas pipeline to reduce our heating costs out here.  The scoping team noted that the pipeline would carry a common carrier designation and that if room were available that a 3rd party could rent and transport gas for purposes of power generation.

One attendee asked about public access to the pipeline corridor, expressing concern that no traditional uses would be hindered in any way.  However, another person noted that the corridor would provide easy access for people from the Cooke Inlet side traveling by snow machine or 4-wheeler to come into the Kuskokwim and compete with subsistence users over subsistence resources.


One person expressed concerns over air quality issues from things like increased emissions from barge traffic or diesel generators like that at the Jungjuk Creek port.  The person wondered if the air quality was going to be monitored up and down the river during the life of the project.

Another concern brought up was airborne mercury and how it would be monitored.  One person had concerns over its potential for contaminating subsistence foods like berries even far away from the mine site.


One person noted that the EIS process must consider not only the activity being studied, but also cumulative effects from past and potential future activities.  For instance, one person mentioned a road possibly being built from the Yukon to the Kuskokwim that although having benefits would likely have consequences, and the increased mineral exploration that has gone on in the headwaters of the Aniak and other nearby drainages, that could likely proceed if better infrastructure were in place if the Donlin project were to proceed.


As might be expected, the concern for acid mine drainage also came up.  One person questioned whether or not a single plastic liner was adequate for the tailings impoundment.

One person in attendance noted that a loophole in the Clean Water Act allows mine tailings or “fill material” to be placed directly into waterway.  This person requested that the EIS consider what the ramifications are with the loophole as is and how the Donlin Gold operation or engineering plans would be affected if the practice of dumping such material were not allowed.


One person brought up the need for a training facility in Aniak, to train local residents for the many heavy equipment and welding jobs – just to name a few.

Another attendee expressed the need for more people already trained to be union qualified.

Someone noted how the two-weeks-on and two-weeks-off schedule disrupted family life and suggested having Donlin Gold do what was done years ago at NYAC where entire families resided year-round at the camp, with schools and other amenities provided.


An attendee recommended that simple fact sheets explaining all of the typical concerns associated with such a project, things like what is acid mine drainage, the implications of perpetual water treatment, mercury contamination issues, water and air quality risks, river bank erosion from barge transport and subsistence fishing conflicts due to increased barge traffic, etc.  He noted that these sheets would be highly beneficial since people wouldn’t have to sort through hundreds, if not thousands, of technical documents.

An attendee recommended that simple fact sheets explaining all of the typical concerns associated with such a project, things like what is acid mine drainage, the implications of perpetual water treatment, mercury contamination issues, water and air quality risks, river bank erosion from barge transport and subsistence fishing conflicts due to increased barge traffic, etc.  He noted that these sheets would be highly beneficial since people wouldn’t have to sort through hundreds, if not thousands, of technical documents.

His recommendation was to mail them out to all residents, because not everyone has access to the Internet.  He closed by stating how limited prediction data were and that many people are expecting the EIS process inform them, but in reality they could easily get lost in the data and miss any window of opportunity to affect process.


The scoping team noted that Donlin Gold personnel were still analyzing some of the baseline information and that their findings would be eventually be available on-line at

They also stated that although questions were brought up at the meeting and that every comment was on the record, it was also recommended for interested parties to follow up with written comments.

In case you were not able to attend one of the public meetings, please do express your concerns in writing.


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.


Army Corps Of Engineers’ Donlin Gold Public Scoping Meeting Presentation

Here is the presentation by the COE for the upcoming public scoping meetings that will begin on Monday, January 14 in Bethel – then Aniak on the 15th and Crooked Creek on the 16th and continue through March in other locations. To see the entire presentation, click on the following link.    ScopingMtgPresJan14_2013

Regional Scoping Meetings for the Donlin Gold EIS are Fast Approaching

This will be your opportunity to keep abreast of the project’s events as they unfold and get involved by providing your comments and expressing any concerns you might have.

Here is the link for the official Donlin Gold EIS Get Involved Page.

Meetings for the Donlin Gold EIS will be held in following communities:

Monday, January 14, 2013
6:00 p.m.
Yup’iit Piciryarait Cultural Center

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013
6:00 p.m.
Aniak High School

Crooked Creek
Wednesday, January 16th, 2013
6:00 p.m.
Tribal Council Office

Tuesday, January 22, 2013
6:00 p.m.
Wilda Marston Theatre

Upcoming meetings include:

January/February 2013
Quinhagak • Kipnuk • Nunapitchuk • Akiak

February 2013
Toksook Bay • Hooper Bay • Emmonak • Saint Mary’s

March 2013
Holy Cross • McGrath

Donlin Gold Project Happenings

Here are the latest happenings on the Donlin Gold Environmental Impact Statement – known forever more as the EIS.  If you’ve never heard of such a thing, you’ll be hearing that acronym hundreds, if not thousands, of times in the next three or four years; it’s likely to be more common than YKHC or AVCP.

Why an EIS?  It’s because Barrick Gold and Nova Gold submitted their Plan of Operations and Wetlands Permit Application earlier this summer for the Donlin Gold project; as a result, the National Environmental Policy Act – or NEPA – process was formally initiated.  What the NEPA process does is consider the environmental impacts associated with the proposed project by requiring the responsible agency to hold numerous public meetings where the public can express their concerns; in addition to those meetings, the public can comment in writing or over the Internet.

The EIS for this particular project is expected to take at least three years to complete.  The Army Corps of Engineers is the lead federal agency spearheading the effort and is responsible for coordinating government-to-government coordination with the tribes most affected by the proposed project.

Tribes can participate in the process in several ways: 1) on a government-to-government basis, 2) as a cooperating agency, 3) as stakeholders, 4) and/or as private citizens.  Sixty-six tribes have been formally contacted about what level of participation they deem appropriate.

The villages of Crooked Creek, Chuathbaluk and Napaimute chose to be Cooperating Agencies.  Our responsibilities in that capacity include assisting the lead agency by providing information and environmental analyses; reviewing direct, indirect, and cumulative effects; and suggesting mitigation measures for potential adverse effects.

The Corps of Engineers has hired a company to carry out the majority of the EIS components; it’s a very large company called URS Corporation that has an office in Anchorage.  URS has a core team specifically designated for working on the Donlin project, and two of their staff should be familiar to some of you here in the Kuskokwim.  Taylor Brelsford, the Senior Environmental Scientist/Planner or Project Manager, has lived in both Sleetmute and Aniak.  Taylor, an anthologist by training, has also worked for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.  Moxie Alexie, who many more will know, is their Senior Rural Outreach Specialist – he’ll be working closely with the tribal and village entities throughout the process.

To get you prepped for what’s to come, here’s a snapshot of the Donlin project as spelled out in Barrick’s/Nova Gold’s Plan of Operation that was submitted with the application for permit.

If approved, the construction for the mine itself will take between three and four years and the life of the mine is expected to be about 27 years.  It will take approximately 2,500 workers to build the mine and then between 600 and 1,000 to operate it.

The majority of the power for the mine will come in the form of natural gas.  A 14-inch pipeline will run mostly underground from Beluga Point in Cook Inlet for 313 miles to the project site.  The gas pipeline will run under the Kuskokwim River between the villages of Stony River and McGrath and placed using a technique called horizontal directional drilling; the distance required for that technique is over 7,000 feet.

Proposed route of the natural gas pipeline

Removal of the ore to be processed will be through what is considered a typical truck and shovel operation.  The ore will come from a large open pit that could be as large as 2.2 miles wide and 1.0 mile wide; the pit could end up being over 1,600 feet deep.

General location of pit, waster rock facility and tailings storage facility

It’s expected that one million ounces of gold will annually be produced at the mine, so to say that this mine will be large is somewhat of an understatement.  Some in the mining industry claim that it has the potential to be the world’s largest producer of gold!

With those 20+ million ounces of gold produced over the mine’s life comes about 3 billion tons of waste material.  Waste rock is the material that contains no gold – for every ton of ore that contains quantities of gold worth processing there are 5.5 tons of waste material to deal with.  The waste rock will be stored southeast of the pit in the American Creek drainage (you can see the location from the previous picture).  Of that 3 billion tons of waste rock, it’s estimated that up to 7 percent of it has the potential to generate acid rock drainage.

Another byproduct of the mining process is what’s called tailings.  The tailings start out as large chunks of rock blasted from the pit that are eventually crushed and ground down to sand size particles in large revolving drums containing steel balls and bars.  From these small particles the gold is removed using a cyanide leaching process.  There is a lot more involved in the milling process – including the recycling of water and chemicals – but what remains is a slurry of liquid and sand-sized or smaller particles that will eventually wind up in the tailings storage facility (TSF) in the Anaconda Creek drainage.

A closer look at the tailings storage facility (TSF)

This tailings storage facility will be over 2,000 acres in size or roughly 107 Bethel Airport runways set side by side (the Bethel runway is 6,400 feet long by 150 feet wide).  The vast majority of material in the tailings storage facility will be the smaller ground particles, much of which will contain some leftover chemicals from the milling process and also have the potential to be acid generating.  For this reason, the entire floor of the tailings facility will have a thick impermeable liner.  The water and chemicals collected in the impoundment will be reclaimed and continually recirculated back up to the milling facility to be used in the milling process.  The dam holding back the tailings will be 460 feet high and roughly 5,800 feet long.

The tailings storage facility for the Golden Sunlight Mine in Montana. Note the liner that covers the bottom and sides of the facility.

The tailings facility dam at the Golden Sunlight Mine in Montana. Pumpback wells pump water or acid rock drainage that seeps through the dam.

What’s presented here in this post is just a general overview of the Donlin Gold project.

This project, if it proceeds, has the potential to forever change the complexion of the Kuskokwim.  I’m not saying that that is a good thing…and I’m not saying that that is a bad thing.  But please pay attention to what is proposed, provide comments if you feel so inclined, and above all stay informed.  The more you know the better informed your decisions will be.

To say that there will be a ton of information to keep up with would be a gross understatement – at times it might even seem to be as much tonnage as there is waste rock – but we’ll help as best we can to disseminate what we know in a timely and easy to understand manner; and hopefully it will be as objective as possible.

Much more detailed information is available on the official website provided by URS at

We’ll keep you posted when additional information is available.



A Tour Of Barrick’s Golden Sunlight Mine In Montana

I recently returned from a Donlin Gold sponsored tour of the Golden Sunlight mine just a few miles outside of a small ranching town in Montana called Whitehall.  The operating mine is about 50 miles west of Bozeman, which is about 90 miles to the north of Yellowstone National Park.  The mine is presently owned by Barrick and has been in operation for over 30 years and is a typical open-pit truck and shovel operation – similar to what Donlin Gold would be.

From all indications the mine appears to be situated in a location that couldn’t be better.  For starters, the climate is relatively dry, with average precipitation about 10 inches a year.  It’s also not far from a major highway – Highway 90 that connects Bozeman with Butte and Missoula to the west and Billings to the east; you can see a good portion of the mine from the highway (see photo below).  Logistically, the proximately to infrastructure such as a power grid and highway make operations like this relatively easy compared to one in remote Alaska that has virtually none.

Looking from the highway at the waste rock storage area

Secondly, most locals who reside in the area are very glad the mine is where it is – in part because it employs a good many local residents, over 200 in the town of a little over 1,100 people.  Not only does the mine provide direct employment, it also requires the services of about 70 contractors (who hire many others) who carry out much of the work.

Upon arrival at the Bozeman airport Kurt Parkan with Donlin Gold and Bill Bieber with Barrick were there to greet us and shuttle us to our hotel.  Bill pointed out that the Golden Sunlight mine was the first mine he ever worked at – he grew up in Whitehall and still has family there.

After the long flight and a short’s night rest the group travelled the following day to Whitehall and observed one of the monthly meetings of the group called the Community Transition Advisory Committee, or CTAC for short.  This group is comprised of local community members, e.g., representatives of the chamber of commerce; county commissions; Fish Wildlife and Parks which is similar to ADF&G; the local college; the local development corporation; the school district; bank; several local landowners and various mine managers.  The intent is to have a representative cross section of the community.

One of the members, a county extension agent, came to Bethel several years ago to speak about the ongoing mine operations at an AVCP Convention while another used to live in St. Marys.

The group was established about ten years ago with the purpose of regularly communicating the happenings of the mine to local residents; in other words an information conduit.  It was originally started when it appeared that the mine life would be coming to an end and the community leaders feared that the mine would be typical of many boom and bust resource extraction projects like are common in the western part of the lower 48.  They wanted as smooth a transition as possible to offset the large economic void left when the mine does eventually cease operations.

During the meeting it was noted that Barrick has done a lot for the community and that one of their guiding principles is sustainable development….even after the closure of the mine; the goal here being to build economic and social capacity throughout the region.  Several times during the meeting it was noted that safety in all aspects of the operation is one of Barrick’s highest priorities, and that they have worked to transfer that ethic throughout the community via safety fairs and other means.

Several of the local residents expressed a sincere trust between the community members and the managers of the mine.  It seems that the mine’s personnel and the local residents have a very good working relationship.  Not only are those 200+ residents employed by the mine, but a good portion of the managers are thoroughly involved in civic activities.

The second day of our trip was the actual tour of the mine facilities.  We first sat through a safety briefing and then a presentation about the workings of the mine.  During the mine’s life around 3.2 million ounces of gold has been recovered from 64 million tons of ore that have been blasted, trucked and processed in one way or another.  To date about 2,300 acres of land have been disturbed, much of which has already been reclaimed (we did see some wildlife; i.e., deer in and around the reclaimed areas).

If you look closely in the center of the picture you'll see a mule deer - there were three others on the other side of the road we were traveling on.

During the presentation our group asked many good questions, specifically about the similarities and differences between what we were about to see and the proposed Donlin mine.  Most obvious to us was the difference in climate, Montana’s being very dry compared to the Kuskokwim – especially after the past three excessively wet summers!

All operating mines use water, and usually vast quantities of it to process the gold – especially the milling process.

One of the many leaching vats

Both mines are, or will be, what’s called zero discharge meaning that no surface or ground water within the mine’s working perimeter is allowed to enter any streams downstream of the mine itself during the mine’s operation.

Consequently, mining operations have to deal with what’s called a water budget or water balance, and that can be tricky because it’s all contingent on weather conditions…which at best are unpredictable.

A Golden Sunlight representative said that their 10 inches of annual precipitation actually works to their advantage because lots of water flowing through, and around, acid generating ore is problematic. If there was more water then they could handle say from a tremendous amount of snow in a given year, or an exceptionally rainy summer, the probability of acid mine drainage getting into the downstream waters would greatly increase.

According to Bill Bieber, even though our region averages over twice as much precipitation a year, the needs for water at Donlin are such that they will still have to capture every possible drop they can (Crooked Creek averages 15.5” of precipitation a year).  All mines, in order to minimize their water consumption, recycle as much as they can again and again and again.

But such an operation like Donlin will prevent a certain amount of water from entering the streams below (e.g., snowmelt in the spring and rain runoff during the summer).  And it goes without saying, but fish do need a certain amount of water to survive; the less water the less productive the system will be.  It will be interesting to watch just how low Crooked Creek gets in the coming years if the mine goes into production – especially low water years.

Another difference noted was the amount of land that will be disturbed.  It’s uncertain how large Donlin will eventually be, but there is the potential for it to be mind-boggling.  In all sincerity, some mining officials believe from analyzing the exploration data that it could be the world’s largest!  So everything we saw in Montana would be amplified several times, which to be honest, is a little disconcerting.

The height of the tailings dams at both Fort Knox in Fairbanks and in Montana were impressive, but Donlin’s will be that much bigger and holding that much more potentially acid generating material behind them…magnitudes more.  During the tour one geologic plus was noted, and that is that there tends to be a fair amount of naturally occurring carbonate minerals up behind Crooked Creek that could lessen the potential for acid drainage problems by neutralizing much of the acid.

With any mining project, it’s dealing with the tailings that is the most significant environmental challenge.  One thing I learned about tailings impoundments is that they’re designed to hold mostly sand sized processed ore and relatively little water compared to a normal dam; knowing that did allay some of my fears.  Why they don’t hold much water is that, as already mentioned, most of the water going into a tailings impoundment is constantly being recycled back up to be used in the milling process.

Golden Sunlight's tailings impoundment - note the relatively little water in the background

Although these dams are designed to withstand the probable maximum precipitation and large earthquake events, it was noted that the biggest causes of dam failure are overtopping by water and seismic activity – in that order.  So unfortunately, there are no real assurances that there won’t be any problems since nature and its concomitant weather are factors.

In the following pictures you’ll see the plastic liner that will be used to potentially prevent acid mine drainage from seeping through – or out – of the tailings impoundment.  It’s 80-mil thick (a little thicker than a quarter) and will be placed over the entire bottom and sides of the impoundment with pieces spliced together to make it one gigantic impermeable layer.  Unfortunately, liners aren’t forever, so no one knows for sure just how effective they’ll be hundreds of years from now.


A portion of the liner being placed on the side of the tailings impoundment

If liners do fail, which has happened, it’s usually from improper installation or mechanical damage; i.e., a piece of machinery puncturing it.

It is highly unlikely that no acid mine drainage will seep from such an impoundment; so smaller backup impoundments are built to gather the seepage and pump it back up into the main impoundment.  At the Golden Sunlight mine there are three such catchments.

Acid seepage from Golden Sunlight's tailings impoundment


A backup catchment pond pumping water back up to the main impoundment facility

Upon completion of the Donlin project, it’s expected that the tailings facility contents will stabilize and eventually look and function very much like a meadow.  To make that happen they’ll recontour the surface and cover it with three or more feet of topsoil and then plant native vegetation.  It’s also expected that, over time, the concern for any toxic seepage from the tailings impoundment will diminish.

One thing that is forever, however, will be the need to monitor the water leaving the pit once it fills up…which could take 50 or more years.  Here’s a few pictures looking into the Golden Sunlight pit, which as noted will be much smaller than the one planned for Donlin.

Looking across toward the top of the pit


Looking half way down the pit at a truck carrying blasted ore to the processing mill

And looking at the bottom of the pit. Note the water and acid mine drainage seeping from the pit walls. This is indicative of why the water will have to be monitored for its quality for perpetuity...which is forever.

Similar to the Fort Knox mine in Fairbanks, there was little concern for mercury being emitted at the Golden Sunlight mine, but that’s not the case at Donlin.  Since there was little to no concern at either site, very little discussion ensued – so we’ll leave that topic for a later discussion, however.

The official permitting process for the Donlin Gold project will soon begin now that Donlin Gold has formally submitted their application to the Department of Natural Resources.  Now’s the time to pay attention to what exactly is proposed and express your concerns during the public involvement process.

As time goes on we’ll keep you posted on this site as to what’s happening during that process.


Dave Cannon

Environmental Director