Alaska DEC commissioner upholds controversial permit for Donlin gold mine

The site of the proposed Donlin Mine, 145 miles northeast of Bethel. (Dean Swope/KYUK)

On May 27, the commissioner for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation chose to uphold a key state water quality certificate for the proposed Donlin Gold mine. The decision came after administrative law judge recommended DEC not uphold the certificate in April.

In August 2018, DEC issued a “certificate of reasonable assurance” to Donlin Gold, saying the state could count on the company’s operations to comply with water quality standards. The Army Corps of Engineers requires the state certificate before it will issue a federal one.

The Orutsararmiut Native Council is based in Bethel, the largest community downriver from the proposed mine. The tribe challenged the state’s certificate and passed a resolution opposing the mine.

In April, Administrative Law Judge Kent Sullivan sided with the tribe, ruling Donlin Gold’s could not guarantee a “reasonable assurance” the mine would meet and maintain state environmental and water quality standards — specifically for mercury levels, water temperature, and salmon habitat.

ONC tribal citizen Gloria Simeon said DEC’s latest decision to uphold the certificate, against the judge’s recommendation and the tribes’ wishes, risks the health of people in the region. Simeon felt DEC did not listen or respect the opposition from many Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta tribes.

“We have our work cut out for us,” Simeon said.

Judge Sullivan said the agency and Donlin Gold didn’t properly calculate the risk of mercury levels in the water. Donlin Gold is planning to build the mine in a mercury belt, where levels of the toxic metal already exceed state standards, and Sullivan said Donlin Gold and DEC took a “misguided approach resorting to sleight of hand” in using an improper calculation to justify the certificate.

Disturbing salmon habitat in Crooked Creek, a Kuskokwim tributary near the mining operation, is another consequence the tribe takes issue with. Sullivan agreed, saying “salmon and salmon habitat in a large segment of Crooked Creek will be significantly and detrimentally impacted by the project.”

Sullivan’s recommendation not to uphold the state’s water quality certificate potentially jeopardized Donlin Gold from receiving its federal Corps’ permit, one of the major authorizations it needs to operate.

DEC Commissioner Jason Brune had the final say on whether to accept the judge’s recommendations. He rejected them.

In his decision, Brune said the numerous analyses performed by multiple federal and state agencies throughout the permitting process showed mining operations would meet state and federal environmental and water quality standards.

Donlin Gold applauded the decision.

“Simply put, we will not operate the project without demonstrated compliance with the state’s water quality standards,” spokesperson Kristina Woolston said.

Calista Corporation, which owns the mineral rights to the mine, also agreed with Brune’s decision.

Thirteen tribes in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta have passed resolutions opposing the mining project. During the 2019 convention of the Association of Village Council Presidents, 35 tribes voted to pass a resolution opposing Donlin Gold, citing possible environmental impacts to the Kuskokwim River.

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