Donlin is confident as it navigates the complicated permitting process

Donlin says it will get most of its major permits out of the way this year. But it still needs 100 before it can begin mining. (Photo By KYUK)

Residents of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta have heard about the proposed Donlin gold mine, which would be the biggest in the world. They’ve seen the logo on hats and bags, and on flyers throughout Bethel and nearby villages. But it’s not easy to understand the process involved in getting this complex project approved. The Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, in particular, with its thousands of pages, is a difficult read.

Listen now

David Cannon has worked for the Kuskokwim River Watershed Council, the Forest Service, and with the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge as a fish biologist. He’s also a local activist who is trying to educate the region on what he sees as the dangers of the gold mine.

“That document is massive,” Cannon told a crowd that assembled in Bethel to air concerns over the final EIS last week. “I have a degree as a biologist and I struggled to sort through that document.”

The EIS is just the first step in the process and is required for projects involving federal agencies, like the Army Corps of Engineers, that will potentially have significant impact on the environment. A broad range of state and federal agencies and villages directly affected by the mine participated in the EIS process. Donlin must receive at least 100 permits from federal and state entities before it can begin mining.

Because the mine would be located in wetlands, the Army Corps has to issue a permit allowing its placement. And states are required by federal law, through the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, to regulate environmental impacts. Kurt Parkan, a spokesman for Donlin, says that while the company anticipates getting most of the major permits this year, the rest will likely be approved within five years.

“Probably within the next two to three years, we’ll probably get the majority of all the permits we need,” Parkan said.

The EIS is probably the most bureaucratic endeavor in the process. It takes years and millions of dollars to complete. It’s been five years since Donlin submitted an application in 2012. But now that the final EIS is out, the company has a much clearer idea of its progress. It already has two permits from the state. The most recent one allows wastewater discharge into Crooked Creek.

During the EIS process, Donlin and the agencies involved calculated the environmental risks from the mine. For instance, as the Army Corps drafted the report, stakeholders gave feedback and studies provided more information on the proposed project. As a result, the company has modified the proposal in response to concerns from the state throughout the process. Donlin’s Parkan says the company is aiming for approval.

“So everything we’ve been doing up to this point is working towards ‘yes,’” Parkan said.

Compared to other proposed mines in Alaska, like the Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay, Donlin is farthest along in the process, according to Faith Martineau, the executive director for the permitting office at the Alaska Department of Natural Resources. She coordinates with federal and state agencies and industries about the permitting process to make sure information can be found in one place. Donlin is one of her projects.

“Donlin would probably be the largest that’s nearing the end of its permitting process,” Martineau said.

Now that the company is in the permitting process, Martineau says that it’s highly unlikely that the state will prevent the company from building the mine. She says the “back and forth” between stakeholders throughout the process helps industries develop a proposal that is most likely to be permitted.

Donlin is now waiting on the combined record of decision from the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Land Management, which would determine how plans for the current mine proceed. But even once the companies have all the permits in hand, they would be years away from starting construction because they would need to re-evaluate whether the mine makes financial sense.