Permitting Officials Explore Alternatives For Donlin Gold Mine

Donlin Gold is in a multiyear permitting process for the proposed gold mine located north of Crooked Creek about 120 miles upriver from Bethel. Scientists and engineers are now studying not just Donlin’s proposed plan, but several variations that would significantly change the mine.

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Anticipating more than 100 permits, regulators are writing a 2000-page Environmental Impact Statement about Donlin Gold’s plans to mine a million ounces of gold per year from an open pit mine. But they’re not just looking at the company’s ideas.

Taylor Brelsford is a senior scientist for URS, an international engineering and environmental company doing the heavy technical work for the Army Corps of Engineers.

“The law requires that we kind of step away form the Donlin proposal and think a little more broadly about potential alternative technologies or processes and at least fully analyze those,” said Brelsford.

The team is looking at about eight major alternatives, some of which have been considered by Donlin in the past. Donlin’s proposed a hugely expensive natural gas pipeline from Cook Inlet to Southwest Alaska, plus barging diesel up the Kuskokwim. Don Kuhle is the project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“A lot of we looked at were ways to reduce the amount of diesel to be barged on the Kuskokwim,” said Kuhle.

A diesel pipeline would eliminate about 40 million gallons of fuel a year going to the Junjuk port site. Brelsford says each alternative has unique challenges.

“A diesel pipeline is more difficult to build, it’s a bigger risk if there’s ever a spill, compared to LNG, so that shows the tradeoffs involved in one alternative versus another,” said Brelsford.

Another option involves having large trucks at the mine run on LNG instead of diesel. They will also study having the port site nearly 70 miles further downriver at Birch Tree Crossing.

The team of more than 50 specialists will also study changes to the mine site, such as changing the tailings dam to dry storage instead of the dammed area with water, and looking at allowing discharge of some treated waste water, rather than keeping it all on site. Another option involves running the gas pipeline through Dalzell Gorge near Rainy pass as was considered before by Donlin.

The draft EIS is not due for another year. People will then see the details of the eight alternatives. In the meantime, the Corps of Engineers does not plan to release much new information but says some details will be a newsletter this month.