Chevak Native Village Joins Fight To Block Southwest Alaska Gold Mining Project

Last fall, Mother Kuskokwim Tribal Coalition announced its support for a lawsuit challenging the Donlin Mine, an open-pit gold mining operation along a Kuskokwim River tributary. Fearing potential loss of salmon habitat, several Native organizations continue to get involved, with the Chevak Native Village adding to the list of litigants. Here’s the press release:

Chevak Native Village Joins Other Southwest Alaska Tribes in Federal Lawsuit to Halt the Donlin Gold Mine

CHEVAK, ALASKA – Chevak Native Village has joined other Yukon-Kuskokwim Tribes in a federal lawsuit challenging the proposed Donlin Gold Mine. 

As proposed, Donlin would be an open pit mine and the largest pure-gold mine in the world located along a tributary of the Kuskokwim River. Chevak Native Village, along with other Tribes, is requesting more scrutiny of the complex massive open pit mine project to ensure protection of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta ecosystem and the natural resources they depend on for their existence and traditional ways of life. 

“All through this process, we have not had adequate consultation regarding the irreversible risks the Donlin mine poses to our region,” said Richard Slats, Second Chief and Councilmember of Chevak Native Council. “Consultation on projects this big and far-reaching must be inclusive of every village. There are 56 Tribal Communities in the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta, including 13 downriver from the proposed site which would be directly affected by a disaster at the mine. This would be one of the biggest pure gold mines in the world, in an area that is critical to our past and our future. Donlin Gold, the company developing the mine, says it’s working with stakeholders in the region to build safely and responsibly but many of us in the region do not feel comfortable with this moving forward.  But Donlin has been moving forward anyway.”

Tribal leaders say what happens at the Donlin mine has the potential to affect the entire Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, including communities like Chevak, and the fish and wildlife resources people in the region depend on for their existence. Dwindling salmon stocks within the region highlight the need to protect the entire ecosystem, including salmon and smelt habitat.  

The lawsuit targets flawed environmental and subsistence studies and permits for the mine that are deficient in three main areas: 1) The Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) downplays and does not fully disclose health impacts from the mine identified in a health impact assessment done by the State of Alaska; 2) The FEIS failed to consider how a catastrophic spill from the tailings dam would irreparably harm the region’s people and its environment and subsistence resources; 3) When the Corps issued its permit, it violated the Clean Water Act by not protecting rainbow smelt from increased barge traffic on the Kuskokwim River. Rainbow smelt are critical for human subsistence and are also an integral part of the river ecosystem, especially as a prey species for declining salmon stocks. 

The court challenge, if successful, would invalidate key permitting documents and authorizations for the mine and would require the federal permitting agencies to identify and require measures to prevent predicted harms to rainbow smelt from Donlin’s barges.  

If built, the proposed mine would include a vast and deep open pit, a 316-mile buried natural gas pipeline, a processing plant, waste rock and tailing storage facilities, water treatment and power plants, dams and reservoirs, and transportation infrastructure including a port expansion in Bethel, a barge corridor along the Kuskokwim River, a new port at Junjuk/Angyaruaq, airstrips, and access roads. 

The Tribes suing in federal court to halt the proposed mine are the original plaintiffs – Orutsararmiut Native Council, Tuluksak Native Community and the Organized Village of Kwethluk – and three additional plaintiffs – Native Village of Eek, Native Village of Kwigillingok and Chevak Native Village. Earthjustice, a nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with offices in Anchorage and Juneau, is representing the Tribes. The Native Village of Chevak is also involved in a state lawsuit challenging the project’s pipeline right-of-way lease across state land.  

The Chevak Traditional Council, the governing body of Chevak Native Village, passed a unanimous resolution opposing the mine in 2018.