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Prospect of Donlin gold mine brings support, despite potential effect on Iditarod Trail

  • Author: Craig Medred
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published October 16, 2014

Where the Pebble mine stumbled, Alaska's other great hope for a major, new mine appears to be attracting supporters.

A hearing on a proposal to build a 350-mile natural gas pipeline across the Alaska wilderness from Cook Inlet to the proposed Donlin Gold project along the Kuskokwim River in the Interior turned into something of a love fest for the mining company Wednesday night at Loussac Library in Anchorage.

Donlin envisions construction of a massive, $6.7 billion, open-pit mine upstream from Bethel in Western Alaska, but it has a problem: high energy costs. The company considered barging diesel fuel up the Kuskokwim to power the mine but found the cost exorbitant and the opposition high from locals who didn't want to see constant barge traffic on the biggest river in Southwest Alaska.

The company subsequently began studying a $1 billion, 14-inch pipeline to pump natural gas from tidewater on Cook Inlet over the Alaska Range to the Interior. Company principal Barrick Gold Corp. of Canada and the Alaska Native corporations with which Barrick has partnered are in the process of trying to secure permits from the Alaska Department of Natural Resources to allow pipeline construction.

Fundamental change for Iditarod?

Though a portion of Donlin's proposed gas line route follows the Iditarod National Historic Trail through the Alaska Range, and holds the potential to fundamentally change the character of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, officials for both that event and the Iron Dog snowmachine race, which uses the same route, showed up at the hearing to praise Donlin.

Iditarod Trail Committee executive director Stan Hooley said Donlin, which has become a major Iditarod sponsor, worked closely with mushers to minimize conflicts with the historic trail.

Only about 10 miles of the trail would be dug up to bury a pipeline, Hooley said, though there are many places where the pipeline corridor would run close and parallel to the mushers' route -- in some ways creating what one might consider a two-lane Iditarod Trail.

But Hooley said Donlin's planners did move the key section of pipeline north of Puntilla Lake into the Jones River drainage to cross the Alaska Range east of the fabled Dalzell Gorge.

"Very early on in this process, Donlin Gold reached out to us as an organization,'' Hooley said before making what amounted to a pitch for the project.

Donlin isn't planning a massive, 48-inch, above-ground project like the trans-Alaska pipeline from the North Slope to Valdez, he said. It plans a buried pipe "only 14 inches in diameter," minimizing environmental impacts.

Even the right of way for the gas line is "quite narrow for this sort of project,'' Hooley said.

Like Hooley, Iron Dog director Kevin Kastner said his organization was supportive. He praised Donlin for not only working with Iron Dog, but for already making "big investments in trail improvements.''

Trail improvements, however, were not necessarily seen as a good thing by everyone.

Guide concerned

The few people to raise questions about the pipeline at the meeting were most concerned about changes likely to come to airstrips and four-wheeler roads built in the wilderness to facilitate pipeline construction. Once built, most seem to agree, the pipeline corridor will make a great trail for snowmachines in the winter and, in some places, for four-wheelers in the warm-weather months.

Big-game guide Robert Fithian, former president of the Alaska Miners Association, pleaded with Donlin to move the pipeline 30 miles to the north of the Alaska Range foothills, where he operates his business.

As now sited, the pipeline route leaves the Iditarod Trail near Egypt Mountain and heads west across what once was the Farewell Burn. In the process, it passes through some of the best moose-hunting country in the upper Kuskokwim drainage.

Easier access there "will put me out of business,'' Fithian said.

His concerns were echoed by anthropologist Ray Collins, who said he'd been asked to appear for the Native Community of Nikolai. He said he started studying Athabascan linguistics in Nikolai half a century ago and knows the people on the north side of the Alaska Range well.

Greater four-wheeler access

The pipeline itself isn't a big concern in Nikolai, he said. "The main concern is what is going to happen afterward.''

Like Fithian, Collins envisioned the pipeline corridor opening "four-wheeler access to a huge amount of country.'' Most of it is traditional hunting ground for Nikolai residents, who've already faced increasing competition from hunters who fly into the old Farewell airstrip and then use four-wheelers on a trail system that extends for miles in many directions.

Roger Jenkins, a former state legislator and Nikolai city manager, said moving the pipeline north, as suggested by Fithian and Collins, would not only ease potential hunting pressure on the local moose herd but put the fuel-starved community within reach of natural gas.

"The problem of rural energy is atrocious,'' Jenkins said. Home heating fuel in Nikolai is going for about $8 per gallon, which has forced many to burn wood, which must be cut and hauled. Cutting and hauling wood are not only backbreaking activities, they require gasoline even more expensive than home heating fuel to power chainsaws, four-wheelers and snowmachines.

The prospect of relatively cheap natural gas has many Interior villages lining up behind Donlin.

June McAfee of the Calista Corp., the Alaska Native regional corporation for the Bethel area, reminded everyone of the long history of miners taking riches out of Alaska, and observed of a gas pipeline that it would "allow the benefits to flow the other way for once.''

State Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, agreed "it's a benefit to the local community,'' but warned there are dangers, too.

If the Donlin line is to provide gas for communities, he said, the state of Alaska is likely be asked to get involved in the financing for the $1 billion project, and access to cheap gas might be "seductive to other mines.''

Is it in Alaska's interests to have them all built? Josephson wondered. And what about environmental issues sure to arise as the pipeline is built? Who is going to oversee construction?

"I don't have confidence in the state of Alaska right now'' to do that, Josephson said.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com

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