Q&A With ADF&G Commissioner Sam Cotton On Mine Permitting

Credit Courtesy of ADF&G

The proposed Donlin gold mine is going through the permitting process and recently picked up 13 Title 16 permits from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Those permits will allow the company to eliminate one salmon stream and partially erase another. 

That has alarmed many people in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, especially since there isn’t a formal public comment process at Fish and Game. A controversial salmon habitat ballot initiative was supposed to fix that, but Alaskans voted it down by a huge margin during the general election earlier this month.

KYUK talked with outgoing commissioner Sam Cotton about Fish and Game’s role in the permitting process for big projects, and how the agency could open it up for more public participation in the future. The following is an interview that has been condensed and edited.  

Krysti Shallenberger: What is the role of the Department of Fish and Game?

Sam Cotton: The department has a broad range of responsibilities, including the protection of fish and wildlife resources in Alaska and the management of those resources. In addition, our Division of Habitat is our permitting division that issues permits for projects that impact water bodies that may have fish in them.

Shallenberger: What is the role of the Department of Fish and Game when it comes to permitting a massive extraction project like a mine?

Cotton: We issue permits for all aspects of a big project like that that affect fish-bearing water bodies. For example, if there is a water withdrawal, a stream crossing, if you are going to put in a bridge or a culvert, if you are going to divert water at all or destabilize banks, those are the types of activities that require  permits. So our division works with the personnel, and eventually their goal is to get a permit to do the type of activity that they are interested in.

Shallenberger: Commissioner Cotton, what is your role as a commissioner?

Cotton: So we have, the Department of Fish and Game has six divisions, including the administrative arm. So each of the five divisions have a particular area that they concentrate their work, and we have responsibilities in all those areas. And we have a director for a division that is the person immediately responsible for the activities within that division, and the statute assigns these responsibilities to the commissioner, and we delegate to the division and their officers.

Shallenberger: What goes into permitting a massive mine?

Cotton: Well, if you want to do a big project like the Donlin Creek mine there are several elements involved including, as I already mentioned, any work in and around a fish-bearing water body. For instance, a person applying for a permit or proposing a project like a big mine will come to the department with plans and propose certain activities, and we will examine those proposals and again work with the applicants to ensure that they meet our standards to ensure for the protection of fish and wildlife resources.

Shallenberger: What is the role of public participation in these Title 16 permits specifically?

Cotton: Well as you probably are aware, the Stand for Salmon initiative addressed that, and there is some criticism of the fact that we don’t have a formal process of hearings for public comments on permits. And we’re working with ideas on how to improve that. The [Alaska] Legislature struggled last year to with how to try to improve that and add public notice requirements, but this is a fairly lengthy process. The United States gets involved with the [National] Environmental Protection Act, and there’s a lot of hearings on that, and we attend those hearings as well, and we hear from the public concerns and when people bring forward information that is important for the department and federal agencies. But our permits are issued without a requirement for a public hearing or comment.

[Editor’s note: NEPA is a law that dictates environmental review on projects at a federal level, and does not dictate how state agencies, like Fish and Game, conduct public participation in their own permitting processes. Fish and Game’s Regional Supervisor Audra Brase says that the agency also solicits comments from the public when it conducts its own surveys and testing for massive projects. Brase added that the public can nominate a water body to be protected as well. However, there is no formal public comment process or public hearing for a specific permit within Fish and Game.]

Shallenberger: I’m curious Commissioner. With the election results, how do you foresee changes or recommendations to public participation carried out by the next administration?

Cotton: Well there’s two ways to do that. We could institutionalize a process within the department, or the Legislature could address Title 16 again and require a particular process, so it’s uncertain, of course, if the Legislature would. We will make recommendations to the [Dunleavy] administration about opportunities for the public to participate, but we’re not going to publish anything and it’s really going to be on the desire of the next administration to develop a formal process.