State Officials Apologize For Public Hearing Conduct

Credit Krysti Shallenberger / KYUK

Public hearings for massive mining projects can be emotional. And in the case of the Donlin Mine public hearing last week in Bethel, many residents were angry with how state government officials conducted it. 

Alissa Nadine Rogers was late to the meeting. But she said that when she walked in the room, “you could tell one side of the room was very attentive to what Danielle [Craven] was saying and really understanding. And the other side of the room had their backs turned to her and their faces to the table and slouching over.”

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and the Department of Natural Resources held a public meeting about the proposed mine’s reclamation plans and costs. Rogers, who is one of the leaders of the Yukon-Kuskokwim River Alliance, which opposes the project, says she felt that the officials were not interested in what residents had to say.

“That really hurts when someone is pouring their heart out and explaining what the process means to us,” Rogers said.

The mine would be one of the biggest in the world if completed, and most people in the hearing did not want to see the mine built. The group requested the hearing because of worries that residents did not have enough time to comment on these plans.

The public comment period is usually conducted after state agencies and the company proposing the industrial project have worked together to meet environmental requirements. Because of that process, most of the requirements have been met by the time the draft is issued, and these permits are rarely denied. But the public is usually excluded from that process until the end when the draft permit or plan is released. 

Typically, agencies ask that comments in these public hearings focus on the specific permit at hand, but many comments went beyond the scope of the hearing, and even targeted state agency personnel from DEC and DNR for their body language and the meeting's structure.

There was also confusion about how to let an Elder from Eek speak in Yup’ik during the hearing. Most Y-K Delta residents practice subsistence, and a good portion speak Yup’ik. As a result, public hearings about Y-K Delta projects try to include a translator and headsets so that all participants can understand the hearing. In this case, there was confusion over the headsets and how to translate William Charlie Brown’s speech into English.

DEC’s Allan Nakanishi was responsible for planning the public hearing, and profusely apologized for how the meeting came across to residents. Nakanishi said that it takes a lot to plan the logistics for a public hearing in rural Alaska, such as finding airplane tickets and making sure that the scheduling doesn’t conflict with fishing, berry picking, and hunting. For the Y-K Delta there are other things to consider, such as translating Yup’ik into English and vice versa. Nakanishi said that they weren’t sure they needed a Yup’ik translator at first. 

“In general, most of our communications are in English, and it’s not that common to have a need for a translator,” Nakanishi said.

But he says that based on a prior public hearing, the agency decided to bring a translator. 

Building enough time for people to speak was a problem too. The DEC and DNR officials operated under a tight time constraint as they had to catch flights later that night. DEC allocated three minutes for each speaker, but some ran over and Nakanishi says that cut into the time for others to speak.

And some of the body language of state employees did not come across well. Tim Pilon, a DEC employee, was one of the presenters at the meeting. At one point in the hearing, he had his entire body turned away from those who were commenting publicly. According to Pilon, it was his way of trying to listen to the actual words instead of just seeing the emotion. DEC’s Nakanishi says that the agency will try to improve.

“We’ll definitely be reevaluating our outreach and [public] hearing processes,” Nakanishi said.

One of those ways could be allowing the public to weigh in before the agencies and company finalize the draft permit or plan.