Donlin gold mine brings hope of jobs — and fear of destruction – by Lisa Demer (Alaska Dispatch News – August 23, 2014)

DONLIN GOLD WORK CAMP — On a remote ridge in the big, open space between Bethel and Anchorage, where the land and minerals are owned by Alaska Native corporations, developers want to cut deep into the earth to extract microscopic bits of gold.

The Donlin Gold project is moving quietly forward. Backers are seeking key government permissions and trying to secure the trust of local residents.

Developers say the mine’s design will be the safest, most stable possible. A wealth of good jobs would open up in the cash-starved Western Alaska region if Donlin is developed, project sponsors say.

Still, the nature of large-scale gold mining incites anxiety and doubt among people who depend on the land and water as their sources of food.

The mine site is 10 miles from the Kuskokwim River near a salmon-producing stream, Crooked Creek. The project would disturb rock and soils laden with arsenic, mercury and other heavy metals; use cyanide in the production of the gold; bring barges loaded with diesel and other supplies upriver daily in ice-free months; and create a 2-mile-long, 1-mile-wide open pit where the hilltop used to be.

It also would be the biggest economic development project in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region. Donlin estimates the cost to build it at $6.7 billion, counting $1 billion for a natural gas pipeline.

Over an expected 27-year operating life, an estimated 34 million ounces of gold could be pulled out of rock crushed on site. That’s about one-third of the gold potential at the proposed Pebble mine, where immense reserves of copper are the primary target.

“It’s a $6.7 billion project because it’s state of the art. It’s the highest standards in just about every regard,” said Kurt Parkan, external affairs manager for Donlin Gold, the mine’s developer.

But residents who rely on unspoiled terrain and worry about already troubled salmon runs remain skeptical. They fear fuel spills, disruptions in streams and, ultimately, the risk of a big disaster like the Mount Polley tailings dam failure earlier this month in British Columbia.

“I wish I could say I trust the mine can be developed without impacting salmon/wildlife habitat, and the way we live in this region,” Bethel’s Bev Hoffman, one of the co-chairs of the Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group, said in an email Friday. “I can’t.”

Another who has followed the mine for years is Grant Fairbanks of Bethel, who has a homestead near Sleetmute, about 50 miles from the project.

“In the short term, it will probably be safe,” Fairbanks said in an interview Friday. “In the long term, I don’t think it will be safe at all.”

Residents are right to remain vigilant, Parkan said. The project plan may change to address concerns, he said.

The project

The mine site sits about 280 miles west of Anchorage and 150 miles northeast of Bethel in a hilly area of winding streams, including salmon habitat. The project covers about 10,000 acres, not counting the land the pipeline would cross.

Operator Donlin Gold is owned equally by two Canada-based mining companies, Barrick Gold Corp., the world’s largest mining operator, and NovaGold Resources Inc., a new player. The land is owned by The Kuskokwim Corp., a for-profit corporation representing 10 villages, and Calista Corp., the Alaska Native corporation for the Yukon-Kuskokwim region. Calista, which has vowed to ensure the project is done safely, owns the mineral rights.

“We wouldn’t be supporting this program if we didn’t feel it was safe and responsible,” said Calista’s communications manager, Thom Leonard.

The project is in what’s called the Kuskokwim gold belt, and it has been in the study and exploration stage for almost 20 years. The Northern Miner, a trade publication, calls Donlin a “monster” prospect. Yet compared to the high-profile, controversial and now struggling Pebble prospect in Bristol Bay, many Alaskans know little of Donlin.

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