Faced with local opposition, IPOP continues search for gold near Nome

The Solomon River area along the Nome-Council Highway. (Photo by Maddie Winchester/ KNOM)

The Alaska Department of Natural Resources has authorized IPOP LLC to continue using a six-inch suction dredge in Safety Sound, east of Nome, as it seeks to move forward with a potential project. Earlier this month on Oct. 5, DNR approved the company’s amended Application for Permits to Mine in Alaska (APMA).

According to David Charron, a mine permitting manager with DNR who replaced Charlene Bringhurst as the authorized officer for this IPOP project, the department has authorized IPOP (the operator) to gather baseline data and help find its gold deposits in the Bonanza Channel.

“The nature of that approved activities is limited,” Charron said. “They are limited in scope to help delineate the existence or locations of a valuable mineral deposit to give us a better idea of the scope and location of potential deposits and to provide some additional baseline information that would be necessary and helpful to the other (permitting) agencies”

Other agencies include the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which will be determining potential environmental impacts from IPOP’s proposed project in the Safety Sound area. John Budnik with the Army Corps says as of this week, the Corps still has not received a complete Individual Permit application from IPOP for its proposed mining project.

Charron emphasizes that this new DNR permit does not authorize IPOP to mine, only to explore and survey its claims with a suction dredge.

During an interview with KNOM in August, Liz Johnson, the tribal coordinator for the Native Village of Solomon, explained why her Tribal Council is formally opposed to IPOP’s exploratory work and proposed mining project. The Solomon Tribal Council is one of the latest to join the growing list of local and regional entities that are openly against IPOP’s project.

“IPOP is doing whatever they seem to want and without permission from anybody,” Johnson said. “So, the public has made a big stink about it and I think that’s why they are back tracking and trying to do things right, but it’s just been really shady the last couple of years”

Since March of 2018, when IPOP first proposed a mining project in the Safety Sound area, its application for an Individual Permit with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was closed by the agency due to insufficient information. That was announced earlier this summer in June.

However, over the last year and a half, IPOP has also been approved for a miscellaneous land use permit with DNR, authorized to take core samples with a six-inch suction dredge before Oct. 31, and sent three amendment requests to DNR regarding its initial APMA.

IPOP’s latest APMA amendment, submitted in mid-July, garnered 32 comments during the public comment period. According to DNR, none of them were in support of the company’s proposal. 

Also in its latest request to the state, IPOP proposed conducting 50 additional core samples east of the Bonanza Bridge, besides the samples the company was authorized to take earlier this summer. IPOP also proposed using a 2.25-inch diameter GeoProbe mounted on a floating pontoon during ice free conditions this month. And finally, IPOP asked for four additional locations to launch its equipment, one of which is on the east side of the Bonanza River Bridge. However, DNR says IPOP is currently authorized to utilize the boat launch at the Safety Sound Bridge.

Johnson weighed in on one specific boat launch location, saying IPOP has already trespassed on Solomon’s land to launch its equipment.

“They don’t have permission, they’ve never asked for permission (to enter our land) …Most recently I read they had submitted an amendment to their application to the state and to access the southwest side of Bonanza Channel Bridge,’ she said. “The Bonanza Channel Bridge, the docking area, is corporation land so that’s basically trespassing”

DNR’s documents show IPOP has 32 state mining claims within 30 miles east of Nome, in the vicinity of Solomon and the Bonanza Channel. Its claims overlap with land from several federally recognized tribes, as well as other permit or lease holders like Colby Engstrom and Bruce Davis.

Charron says Johnson’s specific claim of IPOP trespassing on Solomon land is outside of DNR’s purview, and the issue of public use versus commercial use at the boat launch would be up to the Department of Transportation to determine. He encouraged anyone with concerns about IPOP using the Bonanza River Bridge boat launch to address them to DOT.

According to a letter from Charlene Bringhurst of DNR sent to IPOP, “any activity on non-state land related to the authorized activities without permission from the land owner will be considered trespass. Trespass is not allowed and ground for revocation of this permit.”

Regardless of these specific concerns, Charron wanted to reiterate to local stakeholders that as long as IPOP complies with the stipulations of its permit, it’s authorized to conduct exploratory work under its multi-year APMA, which is in effect through 2022.

“You know there are some activities that are going to be authorized under this, they (the public) will see activities out there,” he said. “And that the Department of Natural Resources will be conducting regular inspections and interaction with the project proponents and monitoring the activities under this authorization”

Beau Epstein, the IPOP representative listed in DNR’s correspondence with the company regarding the latest APMA amendment, could not be reached for comment.

DNR’s authorization of IPOP’s permit is already in effect, however, any person affected by the department’s decision can appeal to DNR directly by emailing dnr.appeals@alaska.gov.

KNOM’s JoJo Phillips contributed to this report.