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Donlin Opponents Score Major Victory In AVCP Resolution Vote

Dean Swope

People in the Bethel Cultural Center tensed up on the morning of Sept. 25. A resolution seeking to withdraw AVCP’s 2006 resolution supporting the proposed Donlin Gold mine had just popped up on the projector screen. The 2006 resolution said that it supported the mine’s development as long as it was developed in an “environmentally sound manner.” 

Henry Hunter Sr., the chair of Bethel's Orutsararmiut Native Council and its AVCP delegate, introduced the resolution. Hunter said that in back in 2006, many tribes didn’t understand the possible environmental risks, especially from Donlin Gold’s proposed tailings dam. Hunter said that this year, tribes came armed with more information about the risks of the proposed mine.

Donlin has to build a dam that would hold its mine waste forever. Hunter says that one of the biggest concerns is what would happen to the Kuskokwim River should the dam collapse. The company says that they plan to build the mine as safely as possible. After the resolution was introduced, Wayne Morgan, Aniak’s delegate, asked to table it, which would have put it on hold for at least another year.

AVCP is a tribal consortium that represents 56 tribes and 48 villages in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Forty-one delegates attended the Wednesday morning session. Last year, AVCP tabled two anti-Donlin resolutionsbecause they were not submitted on deadline. ONC tribal member Gloria Simeon says that moment shamed her because she felt their voice was being suppressed.

“So we had to spend a year with ONC planning to make sure that we do not get knocked out by someone standing on procedure,” Simeon said.

But this year, the delegates passed both the resolution withdrawing AVCP’s support and another resolution from Quinhagak opposing the mine. Both resolutions will be sent to the Alaska Federation of Natives Annual Convention in October. After the vote, Gloria Simeon walked out of the room, trembling. People hugged each other.

“It surprised me that it was so supported to pull and to say to the world 'we are against Donlin.' That was, that’s the power of our tribes speaking. That’s true leadership,” Simeon said.

Devron Hellings, the President of the Native Village of Napaimute, opposed both resolutions. Napaimute and Aniak are two of the villages closest to the proposed mine site, which would be built 145 miles up the Kuskokwim River from Bethel. She thinks that the mine can bring much-needed jobs to the region. Hellings also says that she trusts the proposals Donlin has laid out on how it plans to build its mine.

“Donlin Gold has demonstrated they care about people of Western Alaska. They care about the culture, they know the reliance on subsistence, and we believe they are going to do what they say they will do,” Hellings said.

Hellings said that the reason she and Aniak’s Morgan pushed to table the motion was because their tribes did not have sufficient time to look at the resolutions. Hellings says that it can be difficult for tribes to meet due to geography and technological challenges. AVCP sent out the resolutions on Aug. 19; the convention was held Sept. 24. Hellings added that the new resolution opposing the mine doesn’t have much of an impact since AVCP is “a social service entity.”

“The action in this regard by the body I can’t say holds as much weight as the decisions by individual tribes,” Hellings said.

She says that tribes hold the government-to-government relationship with the Donlin project that AVCP does not. Hellings said that Napaimute supports responsible natural resource development.

Darren Cleveland is the tribal council president of Quinhagak, which supported ONC’s efforts in opposing Donlin at the AVCP convention.

“Each village needs to state where they stand. Are they for it or are they against it? It’s no time to stand neutral. We have to hear everyone’s voice,” Cleveland said.

But how the delegates voted on the resolutions this year does show that Donlin Gold has lost significant support from tribes in the region. In a two-page statement to KYUK, Donlin Gold laid out its efforts to meet with the 56 Y-K Delta tribes to hear their concerns over the past two decades.

“We are disappointed that the delegates at the convention of the Association of Village Council Presidents, a group we have long admired and supported, chose to oppose further development and the future operations of Donlin Gold, including its own Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy. We do, however, stand ready to address any and all concerns the convention delegates raised and work toward agreeable solutions.”

The Calista Corporation, which owns the mineral rights, says that it will continue to work with shareholders to build support for the project. Tisha Kuhns is the interim vice president of lands and natural resource development.

“Calista Corporation respects the delegates at the 2019 AVCP convention. We also respect that a key component of both ANCSA and ANILCA is resource development,” said Kuhns.

Donlin is still gathering state permits and completing its dam safety certification. However, it is unclear when the company plans to start mining.