Waste Management Permit for Donlin Gold, LLC

Waste Management Permit for Donlin Gold, LLC Comments

Tim Pilon, PE

Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation

Division of Water - Wastewater Discharge Authorization Program

610 University Avenue

Fairbanks, AK 99709-3643

E:  Tim.Pilon@alaska.gov

Re:  Waste Management Permit for Donlin Gold, LLC – Draft 2017DB0001

Dear Mr. Pilon,

Kachemak Bay Conservation Society has signed comments submitted by Earthjustice detailing a number of crucial issues that must be addressed by the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) regarding this draft permit. We submit an additional comment here to emphasize core failings of the draft permit. We ask DEC to acknowledge and account for the basic and unfortunate facts about heavy metals; it is clear that the excavation of massive amounts of heavy metals to be contained by a tailings damn  is inconsistent with the Clean Water Act’s antidegredation requirements.

First, a sketch of the location for the proposed site. Crooked Creek feeds into the Kuskokwim and is about fifty miles upstream of the Yukon Delta National Park. The waters are known to be inhabited by all five species of salmon, which are a basis for subsistence for residents. The ecosystem threatened by the mine supports black bears, grizzly bears, coyotes, grey wolves, red fox, lynx, martens, mink, least weasels, snowshoe hares, tundra hares, wolverines, beavers, muskrats, lemmings, voles, squirrels, hoary marmots, porcupine, moose, caribou...and more.  The current use of these waters is the support of this ecosystem; which in turn is used to support both subsistence and sport hunting and fishing.

According to the Fact Sheet, Donlin Gold LCC proposes to construct tailings storage that would encompass an area of 2,351 acres, with a total capacity of approximately 334,300 acre-feet for tailings, reclaim water, and flood events. Total waste rock material is estimated to be 2,900 million metric tonnes. In short, they proposes to expose enough heavy metals to severely damage the ecosystem surrounding Crooked Creek.  

It is well known that that the tailings of gold mines are characterized by toxic concentrations of heavy metals such as arsenic (As), cadmium (Cd), nickel (Ni), lead (Pb), copper (Cu), zinc (Zn), cobalt (Co) and mercury (Hg). We will not detail the scope of destruction perpetrated by excessive amounts of these heavy metals to nearly every form of life, down to the life of the very soil itself. We assume that DEC is familiar with these well-established effects. We wish simply to remind the department of what they already know: that heavy metals never degrade, once unearthed, they present a threat to nearly all forms of life for all time, and that they are dispersed long distances by air and water in waterways and underground in watersheds.

We remind DEC of these facts because they are not accounted for in the draft permit. For example, a cost-estimate of the maintenance of the tailings dams for perpetuity needed. Donlin Gold LCC must be held responsible for the cost, and they must be prepared to be bonded for it. The notion that that Donlin Gold LCC or any other applicant, could pretend to take responsibility for protecting the area around Crooked Creek from the heavy metals for all time may sound absurd; however, these metals have no time limit, and so those are the conditions. Once excavated, is a statistical inevitability that they will leach into the surrounding environment, disrupting the biochemical balance that supports life. No permit that ignores these fundamentals of gold mining and heavy metal toxicity can be issued.

The Clean Water Act’s antidegredeation requirements only permit degradation of water quality if the state of Alaska “shall assure water quality adequate to protect existing uses fully.”  Given the toxcicity of heavy metals, given the amount of heavy metals proposed to be unearthed, given that they do not degrade, no such assurance can be made by the DEC.  If by “uses” we understand current subsistence fishing and hunting practices, no such full assurance can be made by the DEC.  The Clean Water Act’s antidegredation requirements have no time limit: 40 CFR § 131.12 (a) (1) does not state that it is legal to degrade water in the future. It is a statistical inevitability that these metals will degrade the water quality, and it is a distinct possibility that existing uses of the water will be altered. For these reasons this permit cannot be granted.  

Thank you very much for your careful consideration.


Roberta Highland

President, Kachemak Bay Conservation Society