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Alaska Rep. Peltola stuns home region by defending Donlin gold mine, a project she used to oppose

Mary Peltola in 2022, when she ran for office as an opponent of the Donlin Creek Mine (Liz Ruskin)
Liz Ruskin
Alaska Public Media
Mary Peltola making campaign ads on the Kuskokwim River in 2022, when she ran for Congress as a salmon advocate and an opponent of the Donlin Creek Mine.

Congresswoman Mary Peltola has joined Alaska’s U.S senators on a legal brief in support of the proposed Donlin Creek Mine in Peltola’s home region of the Kuskokwim Delta.

Tribal and subsistence advocates in the region are shocked that Peltola, whose campaign slogan was “Fish, Family and Freedom,” would take this position. Sophie Swope, executive director of a Bethel-based tribal coalition called Mother Kuskokwim, described herself as heartbroken.

“I do feel slightly betrayed right now,” she said. “My heart —  it’s like, I don’t think I’ve felt this heavy in a little while,” Swope said.

Liz Ruskin
Alaska Public Media
Sophie Swope, executive director of Mother Kuskokwim, on April 16, 2024 in Washington, D.C., where she’d gone in part to try to persuade Rep. Peltola not to join a court brief on the side of the Donlin Mine.

Peltola was against the mine when she ran for Congress in 2022. 

She’d been a community manager for Donlin Gold for six years. But in 2014, after a dam at the Mt. Polley mine in British Columbia burst and sent millions of gallons of contaminated material into lakes and rivers, Peltola quit Donlin Gold and became a fish advocate. She was executive director of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission until just before she ran for Congress. Her campaign staff confirmed to reporters in 2022 that the Mt. Polley disaster was her turning point.

In the amicus — or “friend of the court” — brief filed late Tuesday, Peltola and the U.S. senators said the mine  “will be an economic engine for the region and provide significant employment opportunities in one of the most impoverished regions of Alaska.”

Peltola’s office hasn’t released a statement yet to explain her change of position and her staffers were not available for an interview.

Donlin would be an open-pit gold mine 10 miles north of Crooked Creek, on lands owned by Alaska Native corporations. The mine is projected to produce a million ounces of gold a year and be productive for 27 years. Among its components is a 470-foot high dam to hold back tailings, chemical-laced mining byproducts that would look like silt or wet clay.

Six tribes in the region filed a lawsuit last year against federal agencies, claiming the environmental studies underpinning permission for the mine were inadequate. Among other things, they claim that the agencies only considered the impact of a small leak of contaminated materials from the dam. The tribes say a mining disaster like the Mt. Polley dam breach would contaminate the Kuskokwim, where salmon runs are already diminished. 

The congressional delegation’s brief says the tribes are trying to stop development on land Congress intended to be developed for the economic wellbeing of people in the region. Congress, they said, set other lands aside for conservation.

“Respect for this balance is necessary for Alaska to exist,” the brief says, “and to allow the Alaska Natives living in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region to continue their traditional way of life and pursue both beneficial development and self-determination, as promised to them” in the 1971 Native land claims settlement law, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA).

Donlin maintains that its polyethylene-lined dam — 1.75 miles long and a mile wide — would be safe and designed to withstand all environmental conditions of the area. When the mining is done, the company also says it would cover the tailings with soil and vegetation to blend in with the surrounding terrain.

Alaska’s Republican U.S. senators often weigh in with amicus briefs, to support Alaska’s resource development projects from environmental lawsuits. But word that Peltola was considering adding her name to the brief has alarmed mine opponents in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta for days.

Gloria Simeon, a founder of Mother Kuskokwim, was part of a contingent from the Bethel region that flew to Washington, D.C. last week hoping to persuade Peltola not to side with the mine.

Gloria Simeon of Bethel.
Liz Ruskin
Alaska Public Media
Gloria Simeon of Bethel.

“I … was disappointed because her campaign promises led us to believe that she would do everything she could to protect our river and protect our people and our salmon,” said Simeon, a member of the Bethel-based Orutsararmiut tribe, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Climate change and other factors are already endangering Kuskokwim salmon runs, she said. Simeon believes a mine could threaten not only a food source but the continuation of culture. Simeon’s voice drops to a whisper as emotion takes over.

“When people talk about fish camp, it’s not an activity. It’s a frame of mind,” she said. “It’s where we go — the values for our people. The oral traditions. Our genealogy. Our relationships. Our History … is all woven into that experience.”

The mine would create thousands of jobs, and organizations in the region are split.

Calista, the for-profit regional Native corporation for the Delta, owns the subsurface rights and has put its political weight behind the project. Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation (YKHC), which runs the Bethel hospital, opposes the mine. The Association of Village Council Presidents (AVCP), representing 56 area tribes, withdrew its support for the mine in 2019. Bethel Native Corporation (BNC) is officially neutral.

Bev Hoffman, a Bethel Elder, wishes the for-profit enterprise wasn’t neutral. Personally, Hoffman worries that even normal operation of the mine would be detrimental to the river. She worries, for instance, that extra barge traffic would distrub young salmon just emerging from their gravel nests. Hoffman said she thought Peltola shared her “fish first” values.

“For many of us that voted for her, that mine is not compatible to a life the way we live on the Kuskokwim,” Hoffman said. “So yeah, I’m really sad.”

Copyright 2024 Alaska Public Media. To see more, visit Alaska Public Media.

Liz Ruskin, Alaska Public Media