In Donlin lawsuit, Murkowski, Sullivan and Peltola come to mining project’s defense

Alaska’s three-member, bipartisan congressional delegation is siding with boosters of the major proposed Donlin mine in an ongoing lawsuit filed by tribal governments that seeks to invalidate the Southwest Alaska project’s federal environmental approvals.

Republican U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Democratic U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola, in documents filed in federal court late Tuesday, called the proposed Southwest Alaska mine one of the state’s “most important and necessary economic development projects.”

And they say that blocking the mine’s construction would stop one of the state’s largest Alaska Native-owned corporations, Calista, from “developing its natural resources in defiance of the commitment to economic self-determination” contained in the federal legislation that settled Indigenous land claims.

The lawmakers’ proposed friend-of-the-court brief aligns them with Calista, which owns the mineral rights in the location of the proposed mine and intervened in the lawsuit in defense of the environmental approvals — as did the company developing the project and Republican Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration.

The delegation’s filing drew a near-immediate rebuke, however, from the coalition of tribal governments that initiated the lawsuit — including those from the communities of Bethel, Tuluksak, Kwethluk, Eek, Kwigillingok and Chevak.

“It’s a very sad day for our region, especially for the Tribes opposing the Donlin Mine,” Sophie Swope, executive director of the Mother Kuskokwim Tribal Coalition, said in a prepared statement. “We met with Rep. Peltola’s staff last week in Washington, D.C. and she is well aware of the widespread opposition to the mine in our region.”

The tribes, which are represented by the environmental law firm Earthjustice, allege that the mine’s development would “significantly restrict subsistence uses and imperil ecosystems and fisheries in the Kuskokwim River and its surrounding lands and waters.” The Kuskokwim supports staple subsistence species — including multiple species of salmon — in the remote region, where groceries must be shipped in and command steep prices.


As approved by the federal government, Donlin would be the largest pure gold mine in the world, require the shipment of toxic chemicals and dewater wetlands and a salmon-bearing stream, the tribes said in their legal complaint.

The congressional delegation, in their brief, point to the proposed project’s benefits for what they describe as “one of the most impoverished regions in Alaska.”

It would employ as many as 1,900 workers from Southwest Alaska communities during construction — some 17% of the region’s 2015 employment — with up to 600 employed during operations, their brief said. And Calista and a smaller Native-owned village corporation would receive “substantial income through lease, surface use agreement, and royalty payments,” the lawmakers said.

The delegation’s proposed brief must still be formally accepted by U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason, who is overseeing the case.

The tribal government from the village of Crooked Creek has also filed its own friend-of-the-court in defense of the environmental approvals, which makes it the only tribe to support the mine in the court case, according to project’s opponents.

Nathaniel Herz welcomes tips at or 907-793-0312. This article was originally published in Northern Journal, a newsletter from Herz. Subscribe at this link.

Nathaniel Herz, Northern Journal

Anchorage-based independent journalist Nathaniel Herz has been a reporter in Alaska for nearly a decade, with stints at the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Public Media. Read his newsletter, Northern Journal, at