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The state has reaffirmed Donlin Gold's water quality certificate for a second time

Katie Basile

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation has reaffirmed its decision to grant the proposed Donlin Gold mine a water quality certificate. The certificate is required for Donlin Gold to conduct its mining operations under the Clean Water Act. The state released its decision on May 13.

The state initially issued a certificate of reasonable assurance to Donlin in 2018. The certificate says that the state has reasonable assurance that Donlin’s operations would comply with state water standards.

The Orutsararmiut Native Council (ONC) in Bethel has challenged this certificate multiple times. The tribe is represented by the environmental law firm Earthjustice. It contends that the state cannot have reasonable assurance that the mine won’t violate state water quality standards. Specifically, the tribe said that the state cannot guarantee that the mining operations will maintain Alaska’s environmental standards for mercury levels, water temperature, and fish habitat.

However, the state believes that the mine can maintain these standards. The state has reissued the certificate once, in 2019, and reaffirmed it twice, in 2020 and 2022, following ONC’s challenges.

The most recent review by the state and Exponent, a third-party engineering and consulting firm, concluded that the water temperatures are not expected to exceed standards for fish habitat. It determined that the mercury levels in the Crooked Creek watershed could even decrease due to runoff control at the mine. But it did find one area where mercury levels could exceed state water quality standards in a portion of the American Creek watershed due to increased runoff. The finding led Donlin Gold to create a plan for monitoring the mercury levels at the site and adapting its operations as those levels change.

ONC issued a statement following the state’s decision to reaffirm the certificate. “The Orutsararmiut Native Council is disappointed in this decision as we believe it neglects the interests of the peoples of our region. The permit will allow for the pollution and degradation of the waters of the Kuskokwim River drainage, the very same waters that support the ecosystem and the fish we so heavily depend on. We are concerned about the impacts the mine's runoff will have on the fish we catch, the moose and birds we hunt, the berries we gather. A threat to the environment is a direct threat to our livelihood and our culture. Any miscalculations will have far-reaching negative impacts on our region and our people,” ONC said.

ONC did not say whether it plans to take legal action opposing the water quality certificate reaffirmation.

Donlin Gold issued a statement saying that the project is committed to responsibly developing the mine, and that the state’s additional review helps ensure that the ecosystem will remain protected.

“We believe the additional studies provided compelling support for the 401 Certificate. The two studies extend the already large body of scientific information about water quality in Crooked Creek, ensuring that the healthy ecosystem upon which people depend is protected. The additional water quality monitoring provides further assurance the project will comply with Alaska’s strict water quality standards. ADEC’s decision to reaffirm the 401 Certificate, after completing their own independent review, further confirms this. The reissuance of the 401 Certificate is even more strongly supported by this added data and analysis, and monitoring. We would like to thank the ADEC for the additional and thorough work in the updated 401 Certificate. Donlin Gold is committed to responsible development of the mineral resources owned by Calista Corporation, the Alaska Native Corporation for the Yukon-Kuskokwim region of western Alaska, and the associated benefits it can bring to the shareholders and residents of the region,” Donlin Gold General Manager Dan Graham said.

Copyright 2022 KYUK. To see more, visit KYUK.

Anna Rose MacArthur is KYUK’s English Language News Reporter. She got her start reporting in Alaska at KNOM in Nome and then traveled South to report with KRTS in Marfa, Texas. Anna Rose soon missed rural Alaska and returned to the bush to join KYUK in September 2015. Anna Rose is a Transom Story Workshop graduate.