Going the extra mile
Donlin Gold welcomes added time to weigh important environmental statement
Last updated 1/27/2018 at 4:54pm
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has added 33 days to the comment period for the draft environmental impact statement for Donlin Gold, providing area residents and other interested parties more time to review the lengthy document and offer informed input on the enormous gold mine project proposed for the Yukon-Kuskokwim region of Southwest Alaska.
The Donlin Gold Mine being considered in the draft EIS includes a 53,500-metric-ton-per-day mill that is expected to produce an average of 1.1 million ounces of gold annually for 27 years. During its first five years of operation, this annual average will be closer to 1.5 million oz.
Along with a 315-mile natural gas pipeline coming in from the east and increased barge traffic from the west, the large and long-lived mine being proposed for Donlin Gold poses a plethora of potential opportunities and risks for area residents and opportunities for area residents and other concerned parties to weigh. This has caused some to question whether the original five-month public comment period provides enough time.
In an interview with KYUK, a public radio station serving the Yukon-Kuskokwim region of Southwest Alaska, Shelia Newman, Special Actions Chief of the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, said the scope of Donlin Gold and the large volume of information to be considered was factored into the comment period from the onset.
“The initial commenting for a draft EIS is generally 45 days … and given the scope of this project we extended that to 160 days,” she explained.
Stretching the comment period out to May 31 provides a full six months of public engagement before the Corps considers all public input, which will be incorporated in a final EIS.
Keith Gordon, project manager, regulatory division, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers told Mining News that the comments received through the end of April had not raised any specific issues that warranted extra time to review, however, 20 requests to extend the deadline were filed.
“Because of the volume of the information to review, the number of requests and the wide variety of issues commented on, the Corps opted to do a one-time extension of 30 days,” he explained in an email.
“We are encouraged by the level of engagement we received from various stakeholders during the public comment period to-date,” said Novagold President and CEO Greg Lang. “Our company strongly believes that the best outcome is always achieved in the atmosphere of openness, constructive discussion and mutual respect from all the interested parties. That’s why we support the Corps’ decision to give the process some extra time to achieve an orderly completion of this important stage in the permitting process.”
Four years of engagement
While the comment period for the draft EIS started in November, the Corps has been engaged with the residents of the Yukon-Kuskokwim region on the potential development of Donlin Gold since permitting the project and associated key infrastructure began in 2012, a process expected to take roughly five years under the National Environmental Policy Act.
This provided stakeholders in and out of the region the opportunity to have their concerns heard and considered before the lead agency started drafting the EIS.
Based on this initial input, the Corps published the draft EIS that outlines a number of alternatives for Donlin Gold: no action, an alternative included in all EIS considerations; the mine proposed by Donlin Gold LLC; and five other alternatives that address issues raised during the scoping phase, such as barge traffic and tailings storage.
Since November, the lead agency for the Donlin Gold EIS, hosted 17 meetings in communities across the Yukon-Kuskokwim region of western Alaska and in Anchorage. At each meeting, the Corps presented an overview of the draft EIS, which evaluates the potential environmental, social and economic impacts of the proposed project and alternatives, and has encouraged local residents to communicate what the project means to them and their families.
“The public participation is to make this document as strong as it can be,” Newman explained.
On May 31, the Corps will begin to evaluate the thousands of written and oral comments it has received during the six-month public comment period before moving ahead with a final EIS, a process that is expected to take about 20 months.
“It (the final EIS) is tentatively set for December 2017, but since we haven’t reached the end of the comment period, we won’t know the effects of responding to comments and how that will affect the schedule,” Corps Project Manager Gordon told Mining News.
If developed, a mine of the magnitude being proposed for Donlin would provide an enormous boost to a region with notoriously few economic opportunities.
Donlin Gold anticipates an annual payroll of US$375 million to pay the roughly 3,000 workers during the three- to four-year construction phase. Once in production, the company expects about 800 workers making roughly US$100 million per year. Having the mine in place is expected to spur about another US$60 million a year worth of jobs.
While not all of these jobs will be filled by residents of the region, history indicates that many will. Over the past 20 years, the companies involved with exploring Donlin have built a reputation for local hire. By 2008, nearly 90 percent of the more than 200 workers at the advanced exploration project were Calista shareholders, or their descendants.
Calista Corp., the Alaska Native regional corporation that owns the mineral rights at Donlin Gold, and Kuskokwim Corp., the village corporation that owns the surface rights at the project, have been vocal in their support of the project and the benefits it will bring to the region.
“As an Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act corporation, Calista must meet two key goals, to successfully operate as a profitable business and to provide socio-economic benefits to our shareholders,” said Calista CEO Andrew Guy. “The advancement of this project can allow Calista to meet both ANCSA goals by providing an opportunity to develop partnerships for future low cost energy, in addition to meaningful employment opportunities for shareholders and a revenue stream for Calista.”
There are those, however, who worry that some area residents may use the healthy paychecks earned at Donlin to move to more urban settings.
For this and other reasons, the board of directors of Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp., a tribal organization that provides health services in the region, has come out in opposition to development of a mine at Donlin Gold.
In a resolution stating its opposition, Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. board penned, “Many people living within the service area of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation experience poverty and unemployment rates among the highest in the United States.”
“The proposed Donlin Gold Mine is expected to employ 3,000 persons during construction and up to 1,400 persons during operation with a large multimillion dollar annual payroll,” the resolution further read.
The tribal health organization worries that families earning mine-scale wages, which averages more than US$100,000 per year in Alaska, would choose to move out of the region. For this, and standard concerns about the environmental impacts of large-scale mining, the board unanimously voted in favor of the resolution in opposition to Donlin.
The resolution was submitted to the Corps during the Donlin Gold draft EIS comment period.
Others, however, see the opportunities offered by development of Donlin as a reason for people who have left the region in search of jobs to return home.
The Kuskokwim Corp. President and CEO Maver Carey said Donlin Gold “has the potential to create jobs and financial benefits for TKC and the people in the region, allowing them to continue living off this land for generations to come.”
Some of these jobs would be for TKC, who would build and operate the Angyaruaq (Jungjuk) Port, an important facility on the Kuskokwim River that will handle the fuel and supplies needed to build and operate the Donlin Mine some 30 miles to the north.
Novagold invites Yukon-Kuskokwim region resident and other interested stakeholders to take advantage of the one-month extension and present their views and suggestions on the Donlin Gold draft EIS.
“For all of the people who call Alaska home, their voice is an essential factor in determining the future of not only the Donlin Gold project, but the broader future of the Y-K region,” said Lang.