Tour Of The Fort Knox Mine

On Tuesday, September 18, I went on a Donlin Gold sponsored tour of the Fort Knox gold mine near Fairbanks with about 30 other folks from throughout the region.  The intent of the trip was to show what a large-scale traditional truck and shovel open pit hardrock mine would be like since the Donlin Gold project would be similar…but even larger.

The chartered Penair Saab 340 departed Bethel early in the morning and headed straight to Fairbanks.  Upon arriving in Fairbanks we boarded a bus and travelled the 25 miles to the mine site.

My first impression as we approached the site was that this was a huge endeavor, much larger than I expected.  To show just how big it is – the monthly electric bill is 4.3 million dollars.

Looking across a portion of the mine from the top of the pit.

As the bus approached the premises, several Kinross personnel boarded and provided information on the various aspects of the operation.  The first stop was to the top of the pit that is approximately 1,400 feet deep.  From that vantage point the 20-foot high dump trucks looked like ants crawling around as they went to and fro the mill facility.  An interesting factoid on those massive dump trucks – each tire is valued at an astounding $80,000.

Looking down into the 1,400 pit that will some day be a lake. Note the dump trucks on the far side of the pit 1/3 of the way down from the top of the photo.

As part of the tour we were able to enter the mill facilities where the ore is crushed and processed; considering the immensity of the operation, the technology and equipment used along with the sincere concern for safety, it was all very impressive.  The big hit was when the Kinross tour guide brought a gold bar worth a quarter of a million dollars onto the bus.  Eyes lit up and everyone wanted to hold it.

View of the outside of the processing mill building.


Inside the mill showing one of several rock crushing drums.

The Fort Knox mine, like the proposed Donlin Gold mine, is what’s considered a zero discharge mine – that is during the mines’ operations.  That means that all the external sources of water (i.e., surface and ground) are prevented from entering the mine by means of diversions or dewatering and that water arising on site (e.g., rainfall, etc.) and used in the mining process is recycled and/or evaporated off – not to enter the streams below.

One difference between the Fort Knox mine and the proposed Donlin project is that Fort Knox uses two cyanide leaching techniques to extract the gold from the ore – an outdoor heap-leach facility for the lower grade ore and a contained vat leach system that extracts gold and silver from the finely crushed higher-grade ore; the Donlin project would use the latter system.

But there are several significant differences between the Fairbanks mine and the proposed Donlin – namely that mercury and acid rock drainage are non-issues at Fort Knox.

The mercury levels at the Donlin site are roughly 1-3 parts per million, much of which supposedly will be removed in liquid form from an autoclave during a processing stage or else a solid form – mercury sulfide.  However, some will eventually make its way into the tailings, which if under the right conditions could be hazardous.  Besides mercury, other considerations dealing with the tailings water is the presence of antimony, selenium, arsenic and molybdenum.

It’s been determined through geochemical analysis that approximately 7.5 % of the waste rock will have the potential to generate acid mine drainage.  Considering how much ore will be processed and stockpiled, this could prove to be a significant challenge when it comes to maintaining water quality.

What a stream affected by acid mine drainage could look like; this one is in Pennsylvania. Such a stream is devoid of most life forms, including fish.

For that reason I was disappointed that we didn’t get to see the tailings dam up close because, to me, this is one of the more critical aspects in regards to protecting our salmon and other fish resources.  Considering the magnitude of the Donlin project, there’s going to be a huge dam required to store the millions of tons of waste rock.

Looking through the bus window at the tailings lake and dam.

Because of the presence of acid generating materials coupled with selenium, antimony, molybdenum and other potentially toxic elements, another substantial concern comes from years down the road when the pit fills with water forming a huge pit lake.  The overflow from this lake will have to be treated and monitored for perpetuity…meaning forever.  To date, no mine in Alaska has ever been permitted with that type of obligation.  Forever is a long time…it definitely goes way beyond seven generations.


A permit application was submitted by Donlin Gold to the state in July and here are likely scenarios as explained by Donlin Gold employees while on the tour:

The permitting process will take at least 3-4 years.

The life of the mine approximately 27 years.

The mine will provide between 600 and 1,400 jobs, depending on what stage the mine is at.  The construction phase will take 3-4 years and will provide roughly 3,000 jobs.

The amount of power needed for the mine will be at least 4 times more than what runs Fort Knox.

The proposed natural gas pipeline is expected to take two years to construct and will go under the Kuskokwim River using a drilling technique called directional drilling.

With the natural gas pipeline, much less fuel will need to be hauled by barge up the river (approximately 80 million gallons).

On average there will be 4 barges on the river at any given time – two going up and two coming down.


Pros and Cons Of Large-Scale Mining In The Kuskokwim

Nova Gold recently made the announcement that they, along with Barrick, would soon be submitting the Permit Application to the State of Alaska to move the Donlin Gold project forward to the next stage.  It’s anyone’s guess just how long the permitting process will take, but being such a large project it could possibly take four years or more.  In the announcement it’s stated that the construction phase would employ 2,000 people while the operating mine would employ between 500 and 800 for over twenty years.

We’ve all seen how Donlin Gold has strived to hire locally, and the mine will no doubt employ many people up and down the Kuskokwim as well as friends and family from over on the Yukon.  But a workforce that large will also bring workers from afar – not that that’s bad; it’ll just be more people, some of which will likely compete for subsistence resources.  Unfortunately, some of those resources may be on the decline.  Think back to this past summer that was the second poorest return on record for Chinook salmon – last year being the worst.  Remember those controversial closures down river?  Keep in mind that Bethel is not getting any smaller, either.

You can’t expect that many more people inhabiting and traveling in a relatively small area and not change the complexion of the region.  Change will come.  Another form of change, climate change, is just one other uncertainty that may influence the salmon runs…and not in a positive way.

There’s a lot of economic benefit from such a project; no one can deny that.  And some social workers, as well as a local magistrate, have told me that they’ve seen a decline in some of the more common social problems that exist in the region…and that’s great.  Yes, certain benefits are a given.

But as the cliché goes, there are no free lunches.  Something I’ve witnessed is the glossing over of the project’s potential environmental impacts and attempts to stifle those who have expressed concern for the project at several local gatherings.  Whether for the Donlin project or the controversial Pebble project in Bristol Bay, mining proponents have repeatedly stated that critics should not express their concerns until the permits are applied for and the specifics are known.  That sounds reasonable…at least on the surface until one digs a little deeper (I guess that pun was intended).

For many years both Donlin and Pebble ads have routinely attempted to allay any fears that such proposed development might induce.  The following quote is from Pebble’s CEO, Bruce Jenkins, in a letter addressed directly to me back in 2007.  I have no idea how he got my name, other than I wrote a letter to the editor of the Anchorage Daily News several months prior to receiving his letter.  Here’s what Mr. Jenkins had to say, “This may seem like a lot of work and a long timeline, but the Pebble Project wouldn’t do it any other way.  The time we’re taking now to gather information about land, water fish and wildlife resources in the Bristol Bay area will ensure that we can protect these important environmental values and traditional ways of life in the future.

Just look in any of the recent Delta Discovery editions and you’ll find similar propaganda.  Each week something like the following appears, “Once Donlin Gold removes all equipment and buildings during reclamation, nearby streams and land will be monitored for years to ensure the environmental integrity of the region.

You can insure just about anything these days, especially through Lloyd’s of London for the right amount of money, but there are very few things in life that anyone can ensure…especially water quality when you have such large-scale land disturbance associated with surface and ground waters.

I’ve collected a lot of baseline information over the years in places like Idaho and Wyoming, and quite often the best it can do is only provide us with something to lament over.  I’m not opposed to economic opportunities for people of the region and certainly not for providing for one’s family; everyone just needs to understand that there will be trade-offs.

My biggest concern for the development of the Donlin Creek project, however, goes beyond that mine itself.  Because the Donlin project is so large, much of the currently non-existent infrastructure will be in place which would then allow less economically feasible operations to be much more viable.

I’m sure you’re aware that there’s been a substantial amount of exploration throughout the Kuskokwim including the Holitna, Holukuk and Aniak drainages, just to name a few.  I don’t need to tell you that the Aniak and the Holitna are the two biggest producers of salmon in the Kuskokwim.   The more activities that occur Kuskokwim wide, the more potential there is for individual mishaps and overall cumulative effects to occur.  That’s just a given.

I’ve done my best over the years to maintain my objectivity over the Donlin project, even to the consternation of some local “environmentalists”.  But issues need to be addressed and people must know that just because there will soon be an extensive Environmental Impact Statement (or study) conducted, that doesn’t mean that there won’t be any significant impacts.

Am I alone as a concerned biologist over such things?  Not hardly.

Why would thirty-six highly regarded scientists write to British Columbia’s highest official expressing concern?  It’s because of the inherent consequences associated with any large-scale development, especially the cumulative effects.

Are we here in the Kuskokwim anywhere near that level of development?  No, not hardly…but not yet, anyway.  All I want is for the people of this region to make informed decisions and not be duped by the bombardment of assurances with terms like ensure.

I’ll go back to the Delta Discovery once again to an advertisement that was placed three years ago following the unsuccessful and highly controversial Ballot Measure #4 that opposed large-scale mining.  Personally, I did not vote for the measure for various reasons, but I cannot agree with the full-page ad that said, “Guyana for your No votes on Prop 4.  Clean water, fish and prosperity – we can have it all.”



Dave Cannon

Environmental Director