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Science and Environment

Donlin Leaders Discuss Proposed Mine With Bethel Community

June McAtee, vice president of Land and Shareholder Services at Calista, with Greg Lang, NOVAGOLD president and CEO. (Photo by Dean Swope / KYUK.)
Dean Swope

Donlin Gold leaders are meeting with key entities along the Kuskokwim this week.

NOVAGOLD President and CEO Greg Lang, Barrick Executive Director Andy Cole, and Donlin Gold General Manager Stan Foo arrived in Bethel Monday to meet with community members and leaders on the proposed Donlin Gold mine.

The group, joined by partners and consultants, held a community forum to answer questions and present information on the project.

Bethel resident Susan Taylor says she’s attended many of these meetings, and though she’s concerned about environmental impacts, the time, she says, is right for this proposed undertaking.

“The timing is better now if there’s going to be mining out here— between the advances in protecting the environment and the awareness of the public putting the pressure to protect the environment,” Taylor said.

All that pressure, Taylor says, is necessary to provide long-term jobs for the region—something Bethel resident Peter Twitchell says could boost subsistence in the delta.

“I think it would affect the individual person in a positive way by giving them the means of a gainful employment for 20-plus years. They could buy their home, all their snow machines, four-wheelers, whatever they need for subsistence activities,” Twitchell said.

Twichell’s stance that income from the mine’s employment could help perpetuate subsistence activities by purchasing subsistence equipment counters the argument,presented at past meetings, that subsistence cannot survive if the mine impacts the environment. Twitchell’s son, Dan Twitchell, doesn’t see these forces—mining and subsistence— as opposing.

The Donlin Gold public information meeting at the Bethel Cultural Center.
Credit Dean Swope / KYUK
The Donlin Gold public information meeting at the Bethel Cultural Center.

“I don’t think you have to have either/or,” the younger Twitchell said. “I think you can have a subsistence way of life with an operating mine. I think all the benefits that come with a project like Donlin Gold will outweigh any impacts to the environment, which I think will be minimum. I don’t even think people will notice it.”

Twitchell has experienced those benefits firsthand. Twitchell grew up in Bethel and worked for Donlin for nine years. He now lives in Nevada, working as an environmental specialist for Barrick’s Turquoise Ridge gold mine. Twitchell wants others from the region to have the opportunities he’s experienced.

“I just think our young people throughout the region need something to look forward to. They need jobs. Right now, there’s no opportunities out there. And I think that’s directly tied to some of the higher suicide rates we have in our region,” Twitchell said. “It’s tough when you wake up, and there’s nothing to look forward to.”

Donlin estimates the mine could operate for just over 27 years, and the company has established a contractual agreement with The Calista Corporation to give hiring preference to Calista shareholders and family members. The project’s draft environmental impact statement, or EIS, estimates that hiring would equal 50 to 60 percent of the proposed mine’s employees, or approximately 1,600 to 1,900 people from Yukon-Kuskokwim communities during  construction and 500 to 600 during operation. The mine requires drug testing and doesn’t allow drugs or alcohol onsite, another move towards curbing social ills Twitchell says.

But possible job opportunities and economic growth didn’t appeal to subsistence hunter and Bethel resident Robert Lekander.

“If they have a fuel spill, what’s going to happen? Where does it go? Right in the river and the fish. We subsist with nets out there. What, [do] we have to pull the net out every half hour to let the barge go by?” Lekander asked.

(Left to right) Barrick USA Executive Director Andy Cole, Donlin Gold General Manager Stan Foo, and NOVAGOLD President and CEO Greg Lang.
Credit Dean Swope / KYUK
(Left to right) Barrick USA Executive Director Andy Cole, Donlin Gold General Manager Stan Foo, and NOVAGOLD President and CEO Greg Lang.

Barge traffic on the Kuskokwim would average about two barges a day, an increase from the river’s current rate of one barge a day during the shipping season, according to the proposed project. Even so, Lekander wasn’t sold on the mine, but he felt that the project had grown so large that it’s become a question of when, not if, the mine is built.

“I’m trying to learn more about it. It looks like it’s going to be going in. It’ll give jobs, but still there’s that impact that it’s going to have on the whole Kuskokwim. That’s what I’m worried about,” Lekander said.

The mining leaders will meet with Bethel City Council Tuesday before traveling to Aniak Wednesday and Crooked Creek on Thursday. Both villages are cooperating agencies on the Donlin Gold draft environmental impact statement, which remains open for public comment through April 30.

Correction: This article originally stated that Donlin Gold has committed to hiring 50 to 60 percent local hire and Alaska Native Corporation shareholders. That information is incorrect. The company has committed to a Calista shareholder and family member hiring preference, which they estimate could encompass 50 to 60 percent of the proposed mine’s employees.