Donlin mine enjoyed years of support in Southwest Alaska, but as the project becomes more real, that’s changing

The Orutsararmiut Native Council in Bethel organized the first public march against the Donlin Gold mine in June 2018. ( Christine Trudeau / KYUK)

For the last two decades, mining companies have been working to develop the massive Donlin Gold prospect in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. And most of that time, the development has claimed support from neighboring communities. But that’s changing. Tribes, organizations, and communities have begun opposing the mine development and organizing. 

In June 2018, the Orutsararmiut Native Council organized the first public march against the mine. The final Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed Donlin mine had just been published a couple months before.

Peter Evon is ONC’s executive director. He grew up in Akiachak, one of the villages along the Kuskokwim River more than 100 miles south of the mine site.

“You know, I was in junior high when I first heard about it. They were bringing in bikes, bringing in recycling programs, and handing out trash bags with Donlin Gold on them,” Evon recalled.

The Donlin prospect has been around for decades, ever since the Calista Corporation  and the Kuskokwim Corporation selected the site for development under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971. Calista owns the mineral rights.

Read our continuing coverage of Donlin Gold in the Southwest Alaska

A company called Placer Dome struck a deal with Calista and TKC to develop the mine in the mid 1990s. After a series of business acquisitions, that venture became known as Donlin Gold.

Donlin has put a focus on what’s sometimes called “corporate citizenship,” investing in communities near the proposed development. In any village in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, and in Bethel, you see Donlin Gold’s logo in the schools: on sweatshirts and coats and hats. Donlin Gold has paid to remove waste from villages. It has rebuilt churches, and purchased scoreboards for village schools.

Evon says that the company knew those steps would be welcomed in one of the poorest regions in the United States that has some of the highest costs of living.

“So anything free is usually associated with something positive, and so they took that approach and that’s all I knew growing up,” Evon said. 

But Donlin Gold spokesperson Kristina Woolston has said that it’s the right thing for the company to do.

“It’s important that, you know, that your neighbors show a vested interest, and this is something we are, you know, showing every day, year after year: that we’re investing now, and we’re investing in the future of these communities,” said Woolston.

When the company signed the leases with the Native corporations that own the land and mineral rights, Donlin promised to prioritize jobs for their shareholders. There could be 800 mining jobs in the region once the mine is operational. Most of the time that the mine has been in development, it hasn’t generated many headlines. People have spoken against it at meetings and hearings, but there weren’t many organized, public protests.

In 2006, the Association of Village Council Presidents, a tribal consortium that represents 56 tribes in the region, passed a resolution supporting the proposed Donlin Gold mine as long as it was built in an environmentally-sound manner. Six years later, in 2012, Donlin Gold submitted an application for the environmental process. In 2018, the environmental review was finalized and published. Donlin also received a handful of major state and federal permits. That’s when tribes began to object, and to organize.

“Well, we came together very recently as part of the Y-K River Alliance just last month,” said ONC tribal member Danielle Craven in a 2018 interview.

Craven said that she knew and had concerns about the mine for years, but it wasn’t until the final EIS was published that she realized how real it could become. Like many people in the region, Craven is concerned that a mine accident could destroy the fish in the Kuskokwim River, and that the extra barge traffic would damage the habitat of smaller fish, like smelt. Donlin Gold had to start from scratch to study the smelt, and opponents say that there is not enough data to show that barge traffic will not impact them. 

“We became concerned that this was going to harm our way of life and living in the Delta, and so we decided to come together,” Craven said. 

Donlin has said that it will continue to montior smelt habitat. 

Craven helped lead a grassroots effort along the Kuskokwim River during the summer of 2018, urging tribes to pass resolutions protesting the Donlin mine. Twelve did. Then the protesters turned their attention to the regional Native corporation, Calista, which owns the mineral rights. Shareholders staged a sit-in at Calista’s annual shareholder meeting in Bethel in July 2018.

Then ONC turned its attention to rescinding the 2006 AVCP resolution supporting the Donlin mine. They teamed up with the Native Village of Kwinhagak at this year’s convention. Darren Cleveland is the president of the Native Village of Kwinhagak.

“The tribes felt it was not worth it just for 30 years out of thousands of years that’s always been there,” Cleveland said.

Tribal delegates rescinded the 2006 resolution and passed an anti-Donlin resolution by huge margins. It marked a significant shift in the region: the Donlin Gold mine no longer enjoyed support from many villages. Now, at least 35 out of 56 tribes in the region were on record against the mine. KYUK sent multiple emails and followup emails to give Calista the opportunity to participate in the story, but Calista was not able to make anyone available.  Donlin Gold says it will continue to build the mine as safely as possible, according to Woolston. 

“Calista and The Kuskokwim Corporation selected the mine site with their lands specifically for the broad and significant benefits mining is able to provide to the region’s residents. These benefits complement subsistence traditions and the very limited economic opportunities available now and in the foreseeable future. Donlin Gold is engineered with modern, sophisticated environmental safeguards, and the rigorous and comprehensive permitting process, which is largely complete, includes engineering, environmental and safety requirements to protect Alaskans.”

In response to the anti-Donlin vote, Donlin Gold and Calista released a two-page statement detailing the hundreds of meetings that both companies have held with shareholders over the past two decades.

Tisha Kuhns is the vice president for public lands and resource development at Calista. In a statement to KYUK in September, she emphasized that mines can be developed safely.

“Calista’s board will continue to review and manage any regional resource development on ANSCA lands with full awareness and active participation,” Kuhns said.

Since then, Calista has intensified their marketing efforts, releasing opinion pieces statewide and a new promotional video. But as Calista promotes the mine, many of its shareholders want a vote on it. Some of them are against the mine. Others think the vote would ensure all shareholders get a say in whether or not the mine is developed. Calista has said that they are considering it.