Crooked Creek, located on the Upper Kuskokwim River, is the closest village to the proposed Donlin mine. The signs of Donlin Gold are everywhere in town, but the local community is conflicted about the mine. Some residents see the potential for much needed economic development, while others see the possible disruption of their subsistence lifestyle.
Two men who grew up in Crooked Creek worked for Donlin Gold in the past. Both see its development as inevitable, but disagree on whether the mine should happen at all.
Crooked Creek is one of the smallest villages in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. John Thomas, who grew up in the town, says there used to be 150 people living there at one point.
"[I] bet we’re not even 100 right now. Everybody leaving," Thomas said.
Thomas runs the only lodge in town; it’s been in his family for decades. He says that he sees the most traffic in the summer, when people come to fish for silvers. But even that is not enough.
"[It's] a little hard to keep it open because it there's no business. Need more people," Thomas said. "We need more."
If the Donlin gold mine begins operating, that could be a financial boost for Thomas. He and his family are some of Donlin's biggest cheerleaders in Crooked Creek. The mine would be one of the biggest in the world, if completed, and it would be built close to 10 miles from Crooked Creek. Thomas helped Donlin haul supplies during the company’s early exploration days,, and still does some water monitoring for the company.
Donlin has promised to offer about 1,000 annual jobs if the mine is developed, which is a huge deal for the poorest region of the state. Donlin’s financial support in the region goes beyond jobs. You can see Donlin Gold’s logo everywhere in Crooked Creek. It’s on clothes, and it’s emblazoned onto the scoreboard at Crooked Creek’s school. Donlin also helped rebuild a church; it helped residents recover after a bad flood in 2011. Donlin Gold spokesman Kurt Parkan says the company spends $1,000,000 each year in the villages throughout the region, including Crooked Creek.
"I think it's important for any business that is working in an area to be engaged with the communities and the people of the region," Parkan said.
The tribal council in Crooked Creek passed a resolution 10 years ago supporting the mine. But the tribal administrator, Ally Zaukar, says that the current council is neutral on the mine. She didn’t give any more details on why the status has changed.
Steven Peter, who wears a blue sweatshirt with "Donlin Gold" in bright big yellow letters across his chest, has a different opinion of the mine than Thomas.
"I mean the money is good," said Peter. "You know it's not forever. What really worries me is contamination."
Peter doesn’t want the mine, but he does see the economic benefits. Like Thomas, Peter used to work for Donlin
"Yeah, the first early days when I started, I mean I had numerous jobs, but I started core cutting too," Peter said. "Being a driller helper and geotechnical work with the geologist."
But Peter relies on subsistence, like fishing and hunting. He's the main caretaker for his 91-year-old mother, Sophia, who is the oldest Elder in the village. He says that his work trapping helps pay the bills, and he sets his traps near the mine site. Peter says that if the mine starts operating, it would hurt his ability to make a living the way he wants to.
"[I have to] provide something for the house and pay bills and whatnot," Peter said.
The divide between Peter and Thomas over the mine is common in the Y-K Delta, but the stakes are higher in Crooked Creek. Donlin says that the company will build the mine as safely as possible, but if there is a mine accident, Crooked Creek is the first community that will feel the consequences and Peter doesn’t want to risk that chance.
But on the other hand, supporters say that jobs could keep people in nearby communities a little longer. Residents in Crooked Creek told KYUK that that the Donlin gold mine is inevitable, so all they can do is wait for it to come.