A few years ago, the Alaska mining industry’s political allies declared May 10 Alaska Mining Day, with the intention to “recognize and honor the intrepid individuals and industry that played an enormous role in settling and developing the territory and the state and that continue to contribute to the economy of the state.” Governor Dunleavy issued a proclamation today affirming recognition of mining’s legacy.

While it’s certainly true that mining has had a major impact Alaska’s economy and identity, this view of history paints the processes of colonialism, or “settling,” in the state as a purely positive trajectory. It’s clear that these processes still occur today. We only need to look at how those critical of the state’s efforts to define us as “America’s Resource Warehouse” are treated by our elected officials. Globally, we know that the industry’s impacts on communities are not all positive, and that even decades after a major mine’s closure, communities in the North are facing lasting effects on health and safety.  

To add some nuance to this view of effects the mining industry has on Alaska’s economy, food security, and access to clean water, the Northern Center’s Clean Water and Mining Manager, Lachlan Gillispie, gives an overview of the industry and its impacts.

We hear a lot about the proposed Pebble Mine, but there are other major mining developments proposed around the state. What are the projects Alaskans should be paying attention to right now?

No Donlin T-shirt decorating in Bethel, Summer 2018

Pebble Mine is a huge threat, and has had a huge presence in the public eye. As important as it is, this focus has overshadowed the other major developments threatening Alaska, like the Donlin gold mine or the proposed road to Ambler.

The proposed Donlin gold mine would be one of the largest open pit gold mines in the world, built on a major tributary to the Kuskokwim, Crooked Creek. The mine has the potential to fundamentally alter the Kuskokwim in a number of ways, including raising mercury levels and adversely affecting water quality, increasing  erosion along the river, and significantly impacting traditional uses of the river like salmon and smelt fishing. Donlin is in a late stage of permitting. The federal National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process is over and the state of Alaska has issued several major permits. The tragedy of this mine lies in the failure of the public process to address local concerns. Time and again the permitting agencies could have listened to community concerns and required the company to build a safer mine, but the permitting agencies deferred instead to ensure the Canadian company could make themost profit possible at the expense of Alaska citizens’ health, and the permanent degradation of the land.

The proposed Ambler road is a state-funded project to construct a private road that would branch west from the Dalton Highway. It would cross about 220 miles through the Brooks Range to the Ambler Mining District, a cluster of mineral deposits near the Kobuk River. There are several issues with this proposal, from the state funding a development for a private company, to concerns over  who will be able to use the road, and its potential to further fragment habitats and damage over 2,000 anadromous streams. The project is currently in the middle of the NEPA process. A federal Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) is expected to be released in late July or early August. Eleven communities along the route have issued resolutions opposing its development.

What are people who live near those projects saying about them?

Communities along the Kuskokwim are deeply concerned. Last year, fourteen tribes passed resolutions opposing the mine. Many of these tribes are involved in ongoing appeals on different permits. Orutsaramiut Native Council (ONC)  has been attempting to engage the state in Government to Government consultation, and finally received a response denying it, despite the fact that Alaska has engaged in consultations with federally recognized tribes since 2000.

Signs in Allakaket during a 2017 public meeting

The proposed road to Ambler is a little more complicated, as several of the local communities want to see a mine built, but have deep reservations about road access and  impacts to both caribou and fish. Recent studies have shown that roads across caribou migration routes significantly affect the herd. Communities in the Brooks Range rely on the caribou and traditional ways of life that would be heavily disrupted by the building of a road and the increased access for outside hunters.

What are the laws with the most influence over how or if mines are permitted and developed in Alaska?

Federal permitting is done almost exclusively through the NEPA process. This process can take several years and occurs in several stages. Scoping is the initial information gathering stage in which the agency solicits input from local communities and stakeholder groups to decide what to consider in the Environmental Impact Statement. Following this, the agency releases a draft version of the EIS with an opportunity for the public to comment on it. After this comment period, the agency crafts a final EIS, ideally incorporating and addressing the comments they’ve received. After the publication of the Final EIS, the agency issues a Record of Decision, stating what course of action will be allowed.

On the state level there is an interconnected web of permits from any number of  state agencies. Two major problems with the way the state approaches permitting a mine, or any development for that matter, are the baseline assumptions that a permit should be issued, and the convoluted nature of who is issuing which permit and which impacts are considered.

The problem of beginning with the assumption that a permit should be issued essentially means all development is prioritized over conservation, no matter what. This leads to poor analysis and cutting corners to reduce workload and streamline the process, which of course means that projects can slip through with major flaws or that projects that should never have been permitted to begin with are rubber stamped.

The siloed jurisdictions of each agency and each individual permit’s extremely narrow scope has two major impacts on the permitting process. First, it encourages a permit to be considered as if it exists in a vacuum, with little to no consideration for cumulative effects (such as taking into account that the Donlin mine would raise mercury levels in the Kuskokwim beyond water quality standards if you combine atmospheric deposition and water discharge rather than considering them separately). It also makes it phenomenally difficult for members of the public to make “substantive” comments within the narrow scope of each individual permit, but might be highly relevant to the project as a whole.

What does our state’s current regulatory environment look like?

The current regulatory environment at both the federal and the state level is one of decreasing transparency, decreasing public input, and a rise in rubber stamping and fast tracking extractive developments on all fronts. In 2018 former United States Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, issued an order requiring all NEPA processes to take place in one year and be no more than 150 pages. For reference, the average NEPA process takes three to six years and can result in thousands of pages of documentation. In the past, the Northern Center has been able to have healthy, productive, if sometimes adversarial relationships with agency staff. These days there is all but a gag order on staff to discuss their work or the public process. The politics of the Trump and Dunleavy administrations have seeped down so far that staff on the ground are afraid to give out basic information about a particular project for fear of losing their jobs.

On the state level the public is largely left out of the permitting process, despite being the ones with the most to gain or lose from extractive industries. A combination of both the permitting agency beginning with the assumption that a permit should be issued, and the lack of transparency regarding what aspect of a project will be considered relevant at any given meeting can make it extremely difficult for the average person to have a say on a given project.

How can people support the communities who would be most impacted by major projects like Donlin or the Ambler road?

The best way to support communities threatened by mining projects it to talk about them – with your friends and family, but also with our lawmakers. Find out who your state legislators are and call them. Ask them why these projects are more important than the health and ways of life of Alaskans. Call the Governor and the Commissioners of DNR and DEC and ask they why they’ve ended the policy of government to government consultation and urge them to halt permitting on the Donlin mine until it occurs. Ask your local paper why they aren’t talking about the massive wave of development hitting Alaska on all fronts. Follow the proposed Ambler road project here, so you can comment on the DEIS when it’s released.

Engage in the public process of commenting, and demand that it becomes a more open and honest one that defers to the will of the people and those who will have to live here after the mining company is long gone. The decision to develop large mines and other extractive industries in Alaska should be a democratic process, not one that so heavily favors money, corporations, and outside interests over the health and safety of Alaskans. We cannot afford to sacrifice the land we rely upon to sustain us if we hope to continue to thrive.

Northern Alaska Environmental Center

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