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.”
Once again – THERE ARE NO FREE LUNCHES.