Donlin Gold would need to destroy two creeks in order to build its proposed gold mine. Now, it has the permits to do so.
Donlin Gold received 13 different Title 16, or “fish habitat,” permits from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game last week. The mining venture needs the agency to sign off on any construction that could impact local fish habitats, and ADF&G gave the green light to a dozen different aspects of the project last Thursday.
"There’s several bridges, so there’s a permit for each one of those," explained ADF&G Regional Supervisor Audra Brase. "Then there’s the permit for the mine itself."
The massive pit of Donlin Gold’s proposed mine will eventually swallow up American Creek, said Brase, and its tailings facility will dam and fill in the nearby Anaconda Creek. Both tributaries are populated by silver salmon and other species. Brase says that her agency has permitted the destruction of those fish habitats, provided that Donlin restores damaged habitats elsewhere.
"The area where Donlin Mine is proposed to go in has been mined before," said Brase. "They’re going to try to improve that habitat, and that will mitigate for the American Creek going away."
The state’s decision infuriated those Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta residents who oppose the mine. Y-K Delta villages rely on the Kuskokwim River and its tributaries for subsistence fishing, and Donlin Gold’s critics argue that the project could damage the region’s food supply.
Last July, a half-dozen tribes sent a letter to Governor Walker requesting that state agencies consult with local tribal governments before issuing any further permits. Unlike some of the other permits Donlin Gold has received recently, fish habitat permits are not open to any public comment period, so the community will not have a chance to respond to the decision.
“The Kuskokwim River feeds our families,” Bethel resident Bev Hoffman wrote in a press release on behalf of the activist group Yukon-Kuksokwim River Alliance yesterday. “It has shaped our culture over millennia. Yet with the swipe of a pen, the Walker/Mallot Administration has decided to wipe out large swaths of fish habitat without even talking to us.”
Donlin Gold wouldn’t be able to build its mine without these permits, and it might have been harder for the corporation to get them after November’s election. The ”Yes For Salmon” ballot initiative would strengthen protections for salmon habitats, and Donlin spokesperson Kurt Parkan says that the corporation still isn’t sure how the measure would impact its permitting process if it were to pass.
"I think it’s safe to say that it’s gonna be an attorney’s dream," said Parkan. "Nobody knows for sure whether there’s a clear path to getting a permit unless, in some cases, you take it to court."
By getting its fish habitat permits now, Donlin Gold is avoiding any new regulations that could be enacted if “Yes For Salmon” passes, not to mention any ensuing litigation. Parkan and Brase both maintain that the ballot initiative had no impact on the agency’s decision to issue the permits last week. The permits have been in the works for years, says Parkan, and it’s just a coincidence that Fish and Game signed off on them now.