ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) — Federal officials signed the major permits Monday for the Donlin open-pit gold mine, a proposed development near the Kuskokwim River in Western Alaska.
The signing took place at the Alaska headquarters of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson, a federal agency with regulatory oversight of development on wetlands. Another federal agency, the Bureau of Land Management, also participated in the signing.
Reporters were invited to the signing because it demonstrated new federal policy under an order signed by President Donald Trump to reduce regulatory delays in infrastructure projects.
In addition to the permits, the BLM also granted rights of way to Donlin for a proposed 316-mile natural gas pipeline from Cook Inlet to the mine. The mine, with its proposed 27-year life, would also build an airstrip.
“This is a project that is in an extremely remote area in Alaska, and there’s no infrastructure,” Donlin general manager Andy Cole said in an interview. “A lot of the things we take advantage of, or assume is normal within the Anchorage area, [are] not out where the mine is located. So energy infrastructure — infrastructure in general — is a large part of the project.”
The permits don’t mean the project will go ahead, Cole said — it still needs state permits and a final decision by its mining partners — Novagold Resources Inc. and Barrick Gold Corp. — about whether the project is financially viable. But the ore itself is big and rich, he added.
A statement from the mine owners said the mine ore contained about 39 million ounces of gold — “one of the largest and highest grade undeveloped open-pit gold endowments in the world.”
Cole said the deposit was discovered decades ago and sits largely on Native-owned land. It’s taken years to develop a mining plan and begin to get federal and state permits.
While Donlin hasn’t had the same controversy of the proposed Pebble Mine in the Bristol Bay region to the south, it has opponents among tribal and environmental groups. One concern is disposal of mercury, which is found naturally with the gold, and of damage to river systems. The mine owners have vowed to protect subsistence activities, but some subsistence hunters have said they are concerned about the health and numbers of prey.
Cole said more than 1,000 jobs would be created during mine construction, and operations would use between 500 and 700 workers. Employment and cash are difficult commodities in that region.