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State committed to safely developing Donlin Gold project

  • Author: Corri Feige
    | Opinion
  • Updated: January 15
  • Published January 11

Donlin Gold mine work camp and runway are seen from the air on Aug. 15, 2014. The project is about 150 miles northeast of Bethel and 280 miles west of Anchorage. It's currently accessible only by air. (Lisa Demer/ ADN)

As commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, it is my responsibility to carry out the department’s mission to “develop, conserve and maximize the use of Alaska’s natural resources consistent with the public interest.” I take that constitutional responsibility very seriously.

Calista Corp. and the Kuskokwim Corp. have similar responsibilities to their shareholders to develop their land responsibly. Together, we share the same goal of reviewing project plans to ensure the Donlin Gold project, one of the world’s largest known gold deposits, meets the state’s strict regulations and can operate safely.

DNR serves as the coordinating agency for the state of Alaska’s environmental and engineering oversight of the project as it finishes permitting and moves toward construction, operation, and ultimately reclamation and closure. Through the large-mine permitting process, experienced agency staff in multiple state agencies work together on the key issues and conduct a thorough environmental review, working in cooperation with their many federal and local government counterparts. The state actively contributed to development of the Donlin Gold environmental impact statement led by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, providing comments on subsistence, water quality, tailings and fisheries issues. State regulators brought significant expertise, permitting responsibilities and accountability to that federal review process.

Does this approach work for Alaska? We have five major metal mining projects that have operated safely and in an environmentally-sound manner for decades. Certainly, much of this is due to responsible ownership, backed by the experience, knowledge and dedication of our mining program staff who provide thorough and independent oversight. To understand how well our mine permitting program works, residents of the Yukon-Kuskokwim region may wish to consider Northwest Alaska residents’ experiences with Red Dog, Interior residents’ experience with Fort Knox and Pogo, and Southeast residents’ experience with Kensington and Greens Creek.

Not only have these mines contributed economically to their respective regions, they have positively affected the environment around them. Fort Knox, located at the headwaters of Yukon River tributaries, has received awards for its reclamation efforts. While pre-mine studies documented the absence of Arctic grayling in nearby creeks and ponds, reclamation efforts achieved the goal of seeing 800-1,400 grayling longer than eight inches in the mine’s water supply reservoir in just a few years. Eagles, moose, mink, otters, loons and many other types of wildlife share the ecology of this area.

I am often asked how we can protect the environment throughout a mine’s life cycle and especially about long-term water management in the years after a mine closes. During the past several decades, our understanding of and commitment to addressing these requirements has grown substantially. We fully recognize and accept that in the end, the state itself must be able to mitigate risks and guarantee that a mine site like Donlin Gold will be taken care of, regardless of any change in ownership. We take this responsibility very seriously. The Reclamation and Closure Plan prepared by Donlin Gold describes long-term water management and treatment. In coordination with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, DNR conducted a thorough review to ensure the proposal meets Alaska’s stringent water quality standards to protect fish and human health.

A major part of this plan is the financial assurance that Donlin Gold must provide to the state before starting operations. The plan describes the specific components behind the financial assurance estimate, which is in the hundreds of millions of dollars. At this early stage, we always take a conservative approach to estimating reclamation, closure, care and maintenance costs. As the mine progresses through development and operation, the state would continuously review the plan and financial assurances. Donlin Gold will be required to update them whenever conditions warrant. Any substantial changes will be subject to public review and comment, including concurrence from both TKC and Calista.

Overall, I have been very impressed by the rigor of the baseline data collection and analyses that have been conducted for the Donlin Gold project. From tailings management to mercury and cyanide risks, to potential impacts on fish and subsistence resources, the project has undergone a high level of scrutiny. In every case, Donlin Gold has never shied away from tackling difficult questions, and has often gone above and beyond what is required by the statutes and regulations. I have also seen the extensive and meaningful public outreach throughout the Yukon-Kuskokwim region by Donlin Gold and the agencies.

The permitting process creates a solid foundation that can reassure the public, Calista and the Kuskokwim Corp. that the project will be constructed, operated, and closed as promised.

It is our responsibility at DNR to develop our natural resources with integrity and for the good of Alaska. We are committed to doing just that and have high expectations of Donlin Gold. The state will fulfill its regulatory responsibilities to review and evaluate permit applications and enforce the terms and conditions of issued authorizations. I believe that with continued input from the local communities, the Kuskokwim Corp., Calista and others, and with oversight by DNR and other agencies, Donlin can develop this world-class resource safely and for the benefit of the people of the region for years to come.

Corri A. Feige is commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.

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