Alaska News

Southwest Alaska tribes sue to stop Donlin Gold project

Three Alaska tribes are suing the federal government to halt the Donlin Gold project.

Tribes from the Western Alaska communities of Kwethluk, Tuluksak and Bethel say the Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Land Management and Interior Department illegally approved the project in 2018. The tribes say the federal government did not fully disclose the project’s health impacts, did not properly weigh the potential harm to the region from a catastrophic spill, and did not provide adequate protection for rainbow smelt, a subsistence food, from increased barge traffic associated with the project.

The tribes are challenging the final approval for the project, a Corps permit allowing filling of wetlands, and a right-of-way for a pipeline issued by the BLM and Interior, the lawsuit says.

The Donlin project is an open-pit hard rock gold mine that would be built about 10 miles north of the Kuskokwim River community of Crooked Creek.

“The Orutsararmiut Native Council opposes the proposed Donlin mine due to the potential health risks, not just to humans, but to all the animals and fish that call these lands and waters home,” said Walter Jim, chair of the Bethel tribal council, in a statement.

The council said that if the lawsuit is successful, the federal government must redo environmental studies before the project can proceed.

Donlin Gold is owned by NovaGold Resources and Barrick Gold.


The company said in a statement that the project is located on land designated for mining half a century ago.

“The Donlin Gold stakeholders fully believe that this lawsuit is without merit and are confident that the actual record will once again fully support the agencies’ decisions. In the meantime, the Donlin Gold team and the owners continue to advance remaining state permitting, as well as drilling and technical work, subject to Donlin Gold LLC board approval,” the company said in a statement.

A spokesperson with the Interior Department, which oversees the BLM, declined to comment. An official with the Army Corps could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday afternoon.

As proposed, the open-pit mine would be one of the world’s largest. The deposit contains 39 million ounces of gold, worth close to $80 billion at today’s prices. A 315-mile natural gas pipeline from the west side of Cook Inlet would supply a power plant at the mine, and fuel storage tanks would be built at Dutch Harbor. The project has an anticipated life of 27 years.

Located on land owned by The Kuskokwim Corp., the area Alaska Native village corporation, the mineral rights to the deposit are controlled by Calista Corp., the regional Native corporation. Donlin is expected to employ 3,000 people during construction and about 1,400 people during operations.

Opposition to the mine has increased in recent years from tribes and other Indigenous groups. They contend the mine will irreparably damage the Kuskokwim’s fisheries, which are a primary subsistence resource for area residents.

The tribes bringing the lawsuit are represented by Earthjustice, which filed the 29-page complaint in U.S. District Court in Alaska.

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Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or