In growing Southwest Alaska conflict, state sides with mine developers

By Claire Stremple, Alaska Beacon - June 19, 2023
The Donlin Mine airstrip, with the camp at the far end, is seen from the air on Aug. 11, 2022. The mine site is in the hilly terrain near Southwest Alaska’s winding Kuskokwim River. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

The state of Alaska intends to intervene in a lawsuit that could block development of a gold mine in Southwest Alaska.

The state aims to support the federal government and mine developers Donlin Gold, LLC. and Calista Corp. against a group of Alaska Native tribes that say the mine project was improperly permitted and could have ill effects on the health of residents, according to documents filed by the Alaska Department of Law on Thursday in U.S. District Court at Anchorage.

Attorneys for the state wrote that the state is right to intervene because of its significant economic interest in the proposed mine project. The state stands to gain more than $1 billion in taxes and thousands of direct jobs between mine construction and operation, according to the filing.

“The outcome of the instant case poses a direct and substantial threat to the State’s economic interests,” they said in a filing that bears the name of Attorney General Treg Taylor.

The proposed mine would be located roughly 10 miles from the salmon-bearing Kuskokwim River and could be one of the largest gold-producing mines in the world, according to its own reports. Development would also include a 315-mile natural gas pipeline from Cook Inlet and an airstrip.

A judge will have to approve the state’s request to intervene, but similar prior requests on other high-profile development projects, such as the Willow oil development on the North Slope, have been approved routinely.

The news comes as at least three more Southwest Alaska tribes joined the lawsuit in hopes of blocking the mine: Native Village of Eek, Chevak Native Village and Native Village of Kwigillingok.

They joined the Orutsararmiut Native Council and other original plaintiffs, alleging U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials didn’t sufficiently consider potential harm to their communities, which rely on the fish and wildlife in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta ecosystem.

Richard Slats, Second Chief and Councilmember of Chevak Native Council, said the plan for an open-pit mine should be subject to more scrutiny.

“All through this process, we have not had adequate consultation regarding the irreversible risks the Donlin mine poses to our region,” he said in the tribe’s prepared written statement.

Native Village of Kwigillingok President Gavin Phillip noted that communities in the region are already suffering from changes in the environment that affect their food supply.

“With climate change, salmon bycatch from pollock factory trawlers and other factors that are causing salmon declines, it’s become even more important for us to protect salmon and other natural resources that we depend on for our existence,” Phillip said in a written statement.

Attorneys for the Alaska Department of Law said the case raises important questions for the state’s residents.

“We are hopeful that the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska will grant our motion. In the interim, we will wait patiently and let the pleadings speak for themselves,” they said in a statement on Friday.

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