BETHEL, Alaska (AP) — Some Alaska residents in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta have raised concerns that 15 days is not enough time to submit public comment on a dozen water right permits granted to an open pit mine, especially with limited internet access in rural areas and travel restrictions on villages because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Orutsararmiut Native Council member and Bethel resident Bev Hoffman said the amount of time tribes were given to comment on the Donlin Gold Mine water permits was inadequate, citing multiple barriers in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region.
“Communities are in lockdown; they’re not meeting,” Hoffman said. “They don’t have internet data to hold big Zoom meetings.”
The state Department of Natural Resources granted the mine 12 water right permits at the end of 2020 after giving the public about two weeks to comment, Alaska’s Energy Desk reported Friday.
State Department of Natural Resources spokesman Dan Saddler said the public comment process was legal, and that state statute allows for 15-day comment periods. The state is able to extend the deadline period, but Saddler said it had not received a request to do so from any of the tribes or organizations who commented.
The Donlin Gold Mine would be one of the largest open pit mines in the world if completed and would require a lot of water to treat the mercury and other toxins released during its operations.
The water right permits grant the mine permission to draw water from 12 streams, a move Hoffman said would disrupt people’s way of life in a region that is one of the most food insecure in the country. Most residents in the region rely on the Kuskokwim River for food, and the Donlin Gold Mine would sit near one of its streams.
“For them to be able to get this water permit that jeopardizes that food security in the manner that it’s happening, it’s so wrong and dangerous. Dangerous to the people that choose to live a way of life out here,” Hoffman said.
Feeding America, a national organization focusing on hunger relief, reports 22% to 24% of households in Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta are food insecure. The group also reported that 21% of households in the Bethel Census Area and up to 29% of households in the Kusilvak Census Area are also food insecure.
One in four Alaska Native households cannot access three meals per day, a rate double that of white households, officials said.
Donlin Gold LLC has emphasized its commitment to building the mine as safely as possible.