The Salmon vs. Mining Battle Haunting Alaska’s Vast Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta

In remote Southwest Alaska’s Yukon-Kuskokwim region, one of the largest and most vibrant river deltas on the globe, a proposal to build one of the world’s most massive gold mines churns forward. According to reports from state and federal regulators, its construction and operation could negatively impact human health and will destroy wild salmon habitat. This mine, known as the Donlin Project, has not received the same intense scrutiny via the press, conservation groups and government regulators as the infamous proposed Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay. Despite that, Donlin poses potential impacts to health and environment similar to those that plague the Pebble Project and in the case of Bristol Bay have raised the ire of the entire country. 

Within a year of former President Donald Trump’s inauguration, the Army Corps of Engineers issued a joint Record of Decision with the Bureau of Land Management authorizing the key Clean Water Act permit required for the Donlin Gold project. That approval was granted despite the fact that the Environmental Impact Statement revealed major environmental impacts including the destruction of salmon spawning habitats and releases of mercury into the air and water far in excess of human health standards.  For example, according to the Final Environmental Impact Statement issued by the Army Corps, it is anticipated that if the mine is developed there will be a 40% increase in mercury deposition to surface waters near the mine.  Additionally, the Fish Habitat permits issued by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game without public notice or process authorize Donlin to permanently eliminate stream reaches that support Chinook, Coho, Sockeye and Chum salmon or as the permits themselves state: result in  “altered or eliminated” habitat, “fish passage… would be eliminated,” and would reduce or eliminate flow of water from headwaters to the mouth of these streams.

In the period that followed Trumps initial permit approval, Yukon-Kuskokwim residents and communities began to express serious concerns about impacts to human health, the environment, and their sacred “Mother Kuskokwim” river from a massive increase in barge traffic carrying cyanide and other chemicals; a major gas pipeline with road access; and other major developments that building the largest open pit mine in Alaska would bring to the region of predominantly Indigenous Yupik, Cup’ik, and Athabascan communities who depend completely on traditional and customary uses of the lands, waters and fish and wildlife resources.  In many communities Yup’ik remains the first language. 

By the fall of 2019, 14 Tribal Governments, the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation, the Regional tribal organization called Association of Village Council Presidents and even the National Congress of American Indians had passed resolutions of opposition to the project.  Meanwhile, Calista, the regional Native for profit corporation, and Donlin’s  parent companies, Barrick and Nova Gold, have turned a deaf ear to the requests of the Tribes to slow down the permitting process and consider the human and environmental justice aspects of forging ahead against such widespread, local, community-based opposition.

While some “critical minerals” are necessary in the climate solutions economy, gold is simply not one of them. More than 50% of the gold produced each year is used for jewelry, another 25% or more is for bars and coins and less than 10% is for technology.