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Chevak Native Village joins others in federal lawsuit against Donlin

Mike McIntyre

The number of Kuskokwim River Tribes challenging the federal permits for the Donlin Gold project in court has doubled from three to six. They say that the process was flawed and that Tribal consultation was inadequate. They want the court to order the federal government to take a closer look.

On June 7, the Chevak Native Village joined other Yukon-Kuskokwim tribes in their federal lawsuit challenging the proposed Donlin Gold mine.

“You know, it's just something that we've been involved with all along is this opposition of one of the world's greatest, biggest, most open pit mines that's proposed upstream or upriver from the Kuskokwim River,” said Second Chief and Councilmember of Chevak Native Council Richard Slats.

The Chevak Native Village, along with other tribes, is requesting more scrutiny of the Donlin project to ensure protection of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta ecosystem and the natural resources they depend on for their existence and traditional ways of life. Slats does not think that there was sufficient Tribal consultation.

“And the majority of this has mostly been through the environmental impact statement that was approved, and then mostly that without adequate consultation to the tribes after the final, and it's moving forward,” Slats said.

There are 56 Tribal Communities in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, including 13 downriver that could be directly affected if something went wrong at the massive project.

Tribal leaders say that what happens at the Donlin mine has the potential to affect the entire Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, including coastal communities like Chevak and the fish and wildlife resources people in the region depend on for their existence. Slats said that dwindling salmon stocks within the region highlight the need to protect the entire ecosystem, including salmon and smelt habitat.

The lawsuit targets flaws in environmental and subsistence studies. It alleges that permits for the mine are deficient in many areas. Slats said that when the final environmental impact statement (EIS) for Donlin came out in 2012, only selected villages were afforded the opportunity to consult.

“Not all of the villages were consulted. Final EIS came out in 2018 with 10,668 pages with 30 days of comment period,” Slats said.

Donlin disagrees. The company responded with a press release which pointed out that it has held hundreds of public meetings to encourage open engagement and create opportunities for residents of the region to share their concerns and questions.

“We have a longstanding history of investing in the region’s communities to share our values of safety, environmental stewardship, community wellness, cultural preservation, and education,” the company wrote in the release.

The court challenge, if successful, would invalidate key permitting documents and authorizations for the mine and would require federal agencies to identify and require measures to prevent predicted harm to rainbow smelt from Donlin’s barges.

If built, the proposed mine would include a vast and deep open pit, a 316-mile buried natural gas pipeline, a processing plant, waste rock and tailing storage facilities, water treatment and power plants, dams and reservoirs, and transportation infrastructure including airstrips, access roads, a port expansion in Bethel, and a barge corridor along the Kuskokwim River.

There are now six tribes suing in federal court to halt Donlin, represented by Earthjustice. The three original plaintiffs were Orutsararmiut Native Council, Tuluksak Native Community, and the Organized Village of Kwethluk. Three tribes joined as plaintiffs in the amended complaint filed this week: Native Village of Eek, Native Village of Kwigillingok, and Chevak Native Village.

Francisco Martínezcuello is the KYUK News Reporting Fellow and a graduate of UC Berkeley School of Journalism. He is also a veteran of the United States Marine Corps.
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