Y-K Delta residents protest 15-day comment period for Donlin Gold water permits

A gravel road in a treed area
The proposed Donlin Gold mine site in 2014. The site is located north of Crooked Creek, which sits on the Kuskokwim River. (Dean Swope/KYUK)

At the end of 2020, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources granted Donlin Gold 12 water right permits after giving the public 15 days to comment. Some residents in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta claim that wasn’t enough time, especially as villages locked down to slow the spread of the coronavirus, and taking into account limited access to the internet in rural Alaska.

Bethel resident and Orutsararmiut Native Council member Bev Hoffman has protested the proposed Donlin Gold mine for years and is frustrated the DNR only gave tribes 15 days to comment on the dozen water right permits it granted Donlin Gold. According to Hoffman, there are a lot of barriers to getting public comment in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

“Communities are in lockdown, they’re not meeting,” Hoffman said. “They don’t have internet data to hold big Zoom meetings.”

Hoffman’s also worried Donlin Gold’s plans for those streams will disrupt people’s way of life in the Y-K Delta. The gold mine would be one of the biggest in the world, if completed, and would require a lot of water to treat mercury and other toxins released during operations. The 12 water right permits Donlin Gold received allow it to draw down the water of 12 streams for its operations.

“For them to be able to get this water permit that jeopardizes that food security in the manner that it’s happening, it’s so wrong and dangerous. Dangerous to the people that choose to live a way of life out here,” Hoffman said.

The Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta is one of the most food insecure regions in the country: Many of its residents cannot access three meals a day.

Roughly 22% to 24% of Y-K Delta households are food insecure, according to Feeding America, a national nonprofit focusing on hunger relief. The organization reports 21% of households in the Bethel Census Area are food insecure, and in the Kusilvak Census Area, including villages along the lower Yukon River and Bering Sea coast, rates are even higher — 25 to 29%. That makes it the second most food insecure region in the nation, just after Jefferson County, Miss. Feeding America reports one in four Alaska Native households cannot access three meals per day, a rate double that of white households.

Most Y-K Delta residents depend on subsistence foods for the majority of their diet. The Kuskokwim River is their primary food source, and the Donlin Gold mine site would sit near one of its tributaries.

The company has emphasized its commitment to building the mine as safely as possible.

Spokesperson for the state, Dan Saddler, said the process was legal: State statute allows a 15-day comment period. The state can extend the deadline, but Saddler said they haven’t gotten a request to do that from any of the tribes or organizations who commented.

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