Y-K Delta Residents: How Will Donlin Gas Pipeline Benefit Us?

Caribou grazing along the Transalaska Pipeline. (Photo Courtesy of DNR Alasksa Pipeline Coordinator’s Office)
Caribou grazing along the Transalaska Pipeline. (Photo Courtesy of DNR Alasksa Pipeline Coordinator’s Office)

The State of Alaska Department of Natural Resources Pipeline Coordinator’s Office collected comments on a natural gas pipeline being proposed by Donlin Gold at Bethel’s Cultural Center Monday evening. It was the first state hearing on the pipeline that would run from Cook Inlet to the proposed Donlin Creek Mine site near Crooked Creek.

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The dozen or so people who showed up to the hearing, had more questions than comments, and many of them sounded something like Martin Nicolai’s from Kwethluk.

“If Donlin builds the pipeline will it benefit the residents of Alaska or will it benefit only the Kuskokwim people or Calista? Donlin is going to be in operation for 30 years, and after that period ends what will happen to the pipeline? Will it still be there? Will it be dismantled? And if it’s still there will it benefit the Kuskokwim Valley and Yukon River villages?” said Nicolai.

Many wanted to know how a natural gas pipeline could be leveraged to benefit their communities and ease the region’s high energy costs. Donlin is looking to build a natural gas pipeline spanning roughly 315 miles from Beluga, on Cook Inlet, to the proposed mine site about 120 miles upriver from Bethel near Crooked Creek.

207 of those miles are over state land. The hearing was specifically to address the pipeline right of way on state land. Donlin officials say they can mine a million ounces of gold per year from an open pit mine at the site, but they’ll need cheap, reliable power, in this case natural gas, to run ore crushers, an oxygen plant, a mill and general operations including a camp of 600 people and possibly even heavy machinery that runs on natural gas.

Small business owner Dan Leinberger says he’s supportive of a pipeline, but wants assurances that the state will look into a public-private partnership to bring a line to the lower Kuskokwim where more people live.

“It’s nice that Donlin would be able to get relatively cheap power, but as the previous speaker said, what does it do really for the rest of us out here?” said Leinberger.

Donlin, which is equally owned by Novagold Resources and Barrick Gold Corporation, anticipates more than 100 permits will be needed for the project and regulators are working on a 2000-page Environmental Impact Statement.

Mark Springer, a member of the Bethel City Council, says anything that would bring lower-cost power to Bethel has a high potential public benefit.

“The idea that we could have significant power generation capacity with an attendant distribution network is very exciting. Alternatively a pipeline downriver is very exciting, although I personally I believe it would be much less expensive to operate a high voltage DC network down this way. And as a common carrier, as basically a commercially operated pipeline, I don’t think that the life expectancy of it should be tied to the potential life of and demand from the Donlin Creek Mine,” said Springer.

State officials say Donlin would only require up to half of the capacity of the line in gas and other groups, because of a common carrier status, could use the rest.

Since several Donlin officials were there in person, the DNR representatives closed the formal public hearing and opened up the floor for a question and answer session.

In answer to questions asked about the possibility of Donlin running a parallel diesel pipeline, Donlin Gold’s External Affairs Manager, Kurt Parkan, said:

“One of the alternatives that’s being looked at is a parallel diesel pipeline. So that’s going to be fully vetted by the cooperating agencies, which include several tribes in the region who are participants in that process,” said Parkan.

Comments will be taken back to the state’s Pipeline Coordinators office for review and be taken into account as the office drafts the commissioner’s analysis and a draft lease. Comments are being taken on the right of way until January 28th 2015.

The Alaska DNR Pipeline Coordinator’s Office held hearings in Bethel and McGrath. A hearing takes place in Anchorage at the Loussac Library tonight (10/15) from 5:30-7:30pm. Hearings are also scheduled to take place in Tyonek the Tyonek Tribal Center Thursday (10/16) from 1-3pm and in Skwentna at the Skwentna Roadhouse on January 21st (1/21/15) from 11am-1pm.

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Daysha Eaton is the News Director at KBBI in Homer. Daysha Eaton holds a B.A. from Evergreen State College, and a M.A. from the University of Southern California. Daysha got her start in radio at Seattle public radio stations, KPLU and KUOW. Before coming to KBBI, she was the News Director at KYUK in Bethel. She has also worked as the Southcentral Reporter for KSKA in Anchorage. Daysha's work has appeared on NPR's "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered", PRI's "The World" and "National Native News". She's happy to take assignments, and to get news tips, which are best sent via email. Daysha became a journalist because she believes in the power of storytelling. Stories connect us and they help us make sense of our world. They shed light on injustice and they comfort us in troubled times. She got into public broadcasting because it seems to fulfill the intention of the 4th Estate and to most effectively apply the freedom of the press granted to us through the Constitution. She feels that public radio has a special way of moving people emotionally through sound, taking them to remote places, introducing them to people they would not otherwise meet and compelling them to think about issues they might ordinarily overlook.