BETHEL – The biggest employer on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta has taken a stand against the biggest economic development project there, the proposed Donlin Gold mine. Its reasoning goes beyond worries over salmon, the environment and public health.
The Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. board's conclusions include a counterintuitive twist. The chance for good mining jobs could lead to out-migration of workers and a drain on human capital in villages, the board says. Some Bush residents might parlay their new economic freedom into a move away, to Anchorage or beyond, only returning to the region the weeks in which they are on the job.
The YKHC board approved the resolution 19-0 April 22 to send to the Army Corps of Engineers as part of the official public comment on the Donlin Gold draft environmental impact statement.
The Army Corps on Tuesday announced that it will extend the period for public comment on the EIS to May 31, responding to repeated requests for more time. The window had been set to close Saturday.
If the mine is developed, Donlin says, 3,000 jobs will be created during construction and the number during the 27 years of operation will range from 800 to 1,400.
"While there is speculation about what employees would do, during our exploration phase we had over 300 employees and the vast majority of them who were from the region stayed in the region," Donlin spokesman Kurt Parkan said in an email response to questions.
Still, some families with a Donlin employee moved from villages to urban Alaska -- workers who would have chopped wood, fished and otherwise supported village life. Donlin flew workers from Anchorage as well as from villages to the mine site, and expects to do the same if the mine is built, Parkan said.
That worries regional health leaders.
"The relocation of the families of the mine workers has caused a drain of human resources in small villages in the region and that drain is expected to increase as the workforce of the mine increases," the new YKHC resolution says.
Residents had been asking whether YKHC would take a stand, said board chairman Esai Twitchell, of the tundra village of Kasigluk. The health corporation runs the Bethel hospital and provides services in 50 towns and villages, including Bethel. Its board heard from Donlin Gold one day last week, then discussed the project the next day. Members were unified from the start in their opposition, said Twitchell, who as board chairman doesn't vote.
Most of the concerns relate to the environment and health. The resolution warns of mercury being released from crushed rock and falling into streams and land where it "will contaminate fish, animals and ultimately people." It points to the threat of longtime containments of mercury and cyanide, used in gold production. It mentions the prospect of an environmental disaster despite safety measures.
"My biggest worry … is the potential effect on our traditional foods, in particular the salmon that use the river to migrate," Twitchell said. The health corporation wants to protect the fish and wildlife for generations, he said.
The Donlin mine site is 10 miles up Crooked Creek from the salmon-rich Kuskokwim River.
The mine would cover about 10,000 acres, but the project also includes a 315-mile natural gas pipeline from Cook Inlet and a tripling of Kuskokwim barge traffic.
Another regional group, the Association of Village Council Presidents, in 2006 passed a resolution supporting development of Donlin, "to the extent that it can be done in an environmentally sound manner" and as long as subsistence was protected.
The region is among the poorest in Alaska, and the association believed that the chance for jobs would improve lives and help address social problems.
Donlin Gold says that the project is rooted in the desire of Native corporations to develop the land to benefit shareholders. Calista Corp., the regional Alaska Native corporation, holds the mineral rights, and The Kuskokwim Corp., a for-profit company for 10 villages, owns the land.
As it is, The Kuskokwim Corp. has seen a drop in the numbers of shareholders living in the region over the past 20 years.
Six big mines already are operating safely in Alaska, Donlin says.
"We are confident we can be the 7th," Parkan wrote. "We all depend on the product of mining, whether it's our cell phones or our boats."
Operation of the Red Dog Mine, a 27-year-old lead and zinc operation near Kotzebue on a site owned by NANA Regional Corp., has led to job benefits, improved education and stability for NANA shareholders, in part through NANA's arrangements with the mine operator, according to a 2015 analysis, published in the Economic Development Journal.
"It gives people, even those who don't work at Red Dog, a vision that they can have a good job, and that school matters toward getting that," said Bob Loeffler, a former state mining official who now is a public policy professor at the Institute of Social and Economic Research.
Red Dog counts about 350 Native shareholders as employees, and of those 144 lived in 11 villages in the Northwest Arctic Borough, according to Loeffler's report. But it's unknown how many of the 200-plus workers who lived elsewhere, including in urban Alaska, left after they landed the job, he said.
Both Calista and The Kuskokwim Corp. see immense potential in the mine for their people. The latter already has negotiated a contract to build and run a new Donlin port site at Junguk Creek on the Kuskokwim River, said Maver Carey, president and chief executive of The Kuskokwim Corp.
"Our main concern is for the sustainability of long-term employment opportunities for shareholders to support their families, no matter where they decide to live," Carey said in a written response to questions. "It's not our decision that they stay in the region; it should be the decision of the individuals who are looking out for their individual best interest of their own families."
So far, hundreds of people and groups have submitted comments on the potential mine impacts in writing or through testimony at public meetings, said Keith Gordon, the Corps' Donlin project manager. People also can comment through the end of May on Donlin Gold's applications for key permissions, including a Clean Water Act section 404 permit to fill wetlands and a separate permit dealing with impacts to navigation, Gordon said.
The comments are being reviewed and categorized by an Army Corps contractor, AECOM. The Corps doesn't yet have a sense of how sentiment overall is breaking down, Gordon said.
The environmental review includes socio-economic factors, and the Corps has considered the prospect of out-migration, Gordon said.
"We recognized in the analyses there is the potential that folks might choose to move out, or back in," he said. "Those are personal decisions. Obviously we don't dictate that to anybody."
The resolution from the region's main health care provider will be reviewed carefully, he said. Comments from those with special expertise get extra weight, he said.