Judge Finds ADEC Certification of Donlin Gold’s Water Quality Invalid & Orders Certificate Rescinded

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Judge Finds ADEC Certification of Donlin Gold’s Water Quality Invalid & Orders Certificate Rescinded

Department of Environmental Conservation told to rescind certification of Federal wetlands permit for Donlin Gold Mine because the project will violate Alaska’s environmental standards & will not adequately protect salmon habitat

Contact:

Mark Springer, Orutsararmiut Native Council, mspringer@nativecouncil.org; (907) 543-2608

Olivia Glasscock, Earthjustice, oglasscock@earthjustice.org; (907) 586-2751

(Bethel, AK)  In a 78-page decision, handed down late Monday afternoon, Alaska Administrative Law Judge Z. Kent Sullivan issued notice of his findings in favor of Orutsararmiut Native Council that Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation was wrong to issue a Clean Water Act Section 401 Certificate to Donlin Gold because the project would not meet the State of Alaska’s water quality standards. Judge Sullivan’s findings are a recommended ruling. DEC Commissioner Jason Brune will have 45 days to decide whether to adopt the ruling.

According to the Clean Water Act, the Army Corps of Engineers is required to obtain a 401 certificate from the state as part of the permitting process for the Donlin project. The Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for the Donlin Gold Project concluded, based on extensive study, that operation of the Donlin Mine would lead to violations of numerous state water quality standards for mercury and water temperature. Judge Sullivan’s findings concur with the FEIS, his conclusions include;

  1. “In this instance, reasonable assurance has not been demonstrated. It cannot be said that construction and operation of the project will result in reasonable certainty that Alaska’s water quality standards for mercury or temperature will be met. It also cannot be said that construction and operation of the project is reasonably certain to protect existing uses”.

  2. “As to mercury, the Division has failed to apply the correct standard. When the correct standard is applied, state water quality standards for mercury will undeniably be exceeded by the project in numerous locations, in many instances by a significant degree”.

  3. “As to temperature, as the FEIS properly concludes, water temperatures in the main stem of Crooked Creek are likely to be impacted by the removal of riparian buffers, wetlands and mine operations, including pit dewatering and the resulting cone of depression. All of these will combine to increase temperatures and, as a result, it cannot be said that construction and operation of the project is reasonably certain to avoid exceedance of state water quality standards for temperature”.

  4. “when the area of impact from the project is scrutinized, it is obvious that the overwhelming majority of the salmon productivity from that segment of the main stem of Crooked Creek will be eliminated. In the absence of mitigation or other compensatory measures, it cannot be said under these circumstances that the protection of existing uses is reasonably certain to occur”.

“Orutsararmiut Native Council Executive Director Mark Springer noted, “This decision by Judge Sullivan demonstrates that the concerns of the People of the Kuskokwim River surrounding development of the Donlin Prospect were, and are legitimate. We knew from the beginning that DEC erred in their hasty issuance of the 401Certificate, and we encourage Commissioner Brune and the Administration to take to heart the conclusions contained in this Proposed Decision, and ensure protection of salmon streams otherwise slated for destruction as well as the additional, noted, long term environmental impacts on the Kuskokwim River drainage and the communities within it.”

“Sovereign Tribal governments have a responsibility for the health and welfare of their citizens, lands, and self-governance. There is nothing more important to Kuskokwim communities and their people than maintaining the subsistence way of life that has sustained them through millennia. This way of life depends integrally upon the salmon and smelt of the Kuskokwim River and its tributaries. The Donlin prospect which is located upstream from these communities, if developed, would be a direct threat to water quality, to the many fish that traverse these waters, and to the Kuskokwim way of life.” Springer added.

“With the decision that DEC cannot assure water quality standards will be met, the Commissioner should adopt the recommended ruling, vacate the certificate, and notify the Army Corps that the project is no longer certified by the state of Alaska and the 404 permit should be revoked.” said Olivia Glasscock, Earthjustice attorney representing Orutsararmiut Native Council.

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 Alaska’s 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.

13 Tribal Governments, the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation, and the Association of Village Council Presidents were joined by the National Congress of American Indians in passing resolutions of opposition to the Donlin project.

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Deb Haaland Confirmed as 1st Native American Secretary of the Interior

**Article reposted from NPR. Link to article here.

Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., is sworn in before her Senate confirmation hearing to be interior secretary last month. Her confirmation makes her the United States’ first Native American Cabinet secretary. Jim Watson/AP

Deb Haaland, a member of New Mexico’s Laguna Pueblo, has become the first Native American Cabinet secretary in U.S. history.

The Senate voted 51-40 Monday to confirm the Democratic congresswoman to lead the Interior Department, an agency that will play a crucial role in the Biden administration’s ambitious efforts to combat climate change and conserve nature.

Her confirmation is as symbolic as it is historic. For much of its history, the Interior Department was used as a tool of oppression against America’s Indigenous peoples. In addition to managing the country’s public lands, endangered species and natural resources, the department is also responsible for the government-to-government relations between the U.S. and Native American tribes.

“Indian country has shouted from the valleys, from the mountaintops, that it’s time. It’s overdue,” Sandia Pueblo tribal member Stephine Poston told NPR after Haaland was nominated.

It’s not the first time Haaland has made history. In 2018, she became one of the first two Native American women elected to Congress. Her nomination by President Biden to lead the Interior Department was celebrated by tribal groups, environmental organizations and lawmakers who called the action long overdue. But her nomination faced opposition from Republican lawmakers and industry groups that portrayed Haaland’s stance on various environmental issues as extreme.

“I’m deeply concerned with the congresswoman’s support on several radical issues that will hurt Montana, our way of life, our jobs and rural America,” said Republican Sen. Steve Daines of Montana, who worked to block Haaland’s confirmation.

As a congresswoman, Haaland was a frequent critic of the Trump administration’s deregulatory agenda and supported limits on fossil fuel development on public lands. She opposes hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. She was also one of the first lawmakers to support the Green New Deal, which calls for drastic action to address climate change and economic inequality.

Republican lawmakers grilled her over those stances during her confirmation hearing in an effort to portray her as a radical choice to manage the nation’s public lands, but Haaland struck a moderate tone, repeatedly saying that as interior secretary she would aim to accomplish Biden’s environmental goals — not her own.

Biden has not supported the Green New Deal or bans on fracking, and he has taken a more balanced approach to fossil fuel development on public lands. He put a temporary pause on new oil and gas leases on federal lands while his administration reviews the broader federal leasing program.

“There’s no question that fossil energy does and will continue to play a major role in America for years to come,” Haaland said during her confirmation hearing, before adding that climate change must be addressed.

Haaland has called the climate crisis the “challenge of our lifetime,” and as interior secretary, she’ll play a key role in the Biden administration’s efforts to address it. Biden has pledged to make America carbon neutral by 2050, an effort that would require massive changes to the industrial, transportation and electricity sectors.

The Interior Department manages roughly one-fifth of all land in the U.S., as well as offshore holdings. The extraction and use of fossil fuels from those public lands account for about one-quarter of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

“The department has a role in harnessing the clean energy potential of our public lands to create jobs and new economic opportunities,” Haaland said during her confirmation hearing. “The president’s agenda demonstrates that America’s public lands can and should be engines for clean energy production.”

Science and Culture Camp Applications are LIVE!!!

ONC will be hosting the Science & Culture Camp this summer for Lower Kuskokwim School District high school students (grades 9 – 12, including incoming 9th graders in the fall of 2021 and seniors who graduate in the spring of 2021)!

The camp is free and will take place July 22 -August 1, 2021. Apply at the link below by April 30 or contact Katie Russell, biologist in the ONC Fisheries department, at krussell@nativecouncil.org or 5456001 for a paper application!

The google form application is available here!

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Fast-41, Mining, and What It Means for the YK-Delta

So what is the Fast-41 Act? 

FAST-41 stands for Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act. Therefore, currently covered projects must:

    • involve construction of infrastructure,
    • require authorization or environmental review by a Federal agency,
    • are subject to the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA),
    • are likely to require a total investment of more than $200 million, and
    • do not qualify for an abbreviated environmental review and authorization process.

Ok, but what does that mean?

It means that typically, FAST-41 applies to the following sectors: conventional energy production, renewable energy production, electricity transmission, surface transportation, aviation, ports and waterways, water resource projects, broadband, pipelines, and manufacturing.

Where can I find more information on FAST-41?

Here is a link to a FAST-41 fact sheet.

So what’s up with mining?

Mining has more harmful impacts than any of the currently covered sectors. Mining produces vast quantities of waste, including toxic waste, that must be managed in perpetuity. Even with modern mining technology, chronic seepage and sudden accidental releases to the environment are the norm, and are likely to increase as mining companies develop increasingly lower grade deposits. Every mine and mine location is unique, posing technical challenges that can sometimes take a very long time to analyze, through no fault of a permitting agency.

All of this suggests that we need more rigorous, flexible permitting to reduce the damage and public costs imposed  by mining. This would not be achieved by admitting mining to the FAST-41 Act that is designed to make permitting quicker.

It is also noteworthy that there is no competing need to speed up permitting. Surveyed mining companies report that the US is already among the most attractive jurisdictions in the world to invest in mining. Mine permits on federal lands take an average of just two years to complete, which is competitive with other developed countries’ permitting timelines. When federal permitting is delayed, research shows that those delays are most often due to either a lack of information from the project proponent or a lack of agency resources, neither of which FAST-41 is designed to address.

Further, before the Council can add mining as a covered sector, which is a far-reaching proposal that would have “substantial direct effects” on Indian tribes, the Council must conduct meaningful government-to-government consultation with all potentially affected Tribal governments. The Council must also evaluate the proposal’s potential to disproportionately affect minority and low-income populations.

What Comments have been made?

On December 28, 2020, a letter was sent to the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council in Washington DC. It was signed by at least 46 independent nonprofit, scientific, and indigenous groups with the intention of stopping mining from being added to the FAST-41 Act. The reasons listed were:

    • A rigorous and flexible approach to mine permitting is essential.
    • Mine permitting is already prompt.
    • FAST-41 contains provisions that would undermine rigorous and careful permitting of mines.
    • The Pebble Mine is a prime example of why FAST-41 should not cover mining.
    • Adding mining as a covered sector required additional process.

From the letter, “Our organizations have significant experience with the federal permitting processes for mines and how those mines affect communities and the environment. We are lawyers, scientists, grassroots organizers, policy consultants, and environmental specialists working to combat harmful environmental, economic, social, cultural,  and health impacts of mining and promote sustainable solutions. Collectively, we represent members, constituents, and clients across the nation who are on the front lines of the mining industry’s worst impacts– which are too often rooted in a rushed, inadequate permitting process” (Page, 2).

The letter can be accessed here and contains detailed explanations for each argument.

Did the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council Respond?

Yes, they did. In summary, they ignored all concerns submitted in the letter. The Council voted to add mining as a sector with infrastructure projects eligible for coverage under the FAST-41 Act. This will effectively allow qualified mining infrastructure projects to become FAST-41 covered projects. This will help Federal agencies coordinate their environmental review efforts to improve the timeliness, efficiency,  predictability, and transparency of the decision-making processes associated with covered mining projects. To read more on the response letter, you can access it here.

Another helpful article can be found here.

So, what now?

At risk groups are currently huddled trying to determine what next steps should be taken. The Biden-Harris administration may also be able to roll-back the decision when they take office. More information should be coming soon. If you are interested in getting more involved in this fight, let us know!

Funding and Opportunities (as of January 11)

Applications for the Gather Food Sovereignty Grant are open until January 14th at 3pm AK time. This opportunity is targeting emerging projects that focus on developing Tribal Food Sovereignty.  Through the first round of the grant, First Nations expects to award up to 13 grant awards of approximately $32,000 to support Native American-led food sovereignty work.

The BIA has released Requests for Proposals for the Fisheries, Wildlife & Recreation Programs. Projects will be funded in four program areas: endangered species, invasive species, hatchery maintenance, and Tribal youth initiatives. Applications must be received by the Alaska regional office by January 31, 2021. Forms for all four program areas are available on the Native American Fish and Wildlife Society website who are also offering technical assistance for applicants.

Training and technical support through FEMA is available for Tribal governments interested in applying for Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) and Hazard Mitigation Assistance grants. The grant application period is currently open and closes on January 29, 2021 at 11am AK time. Access the BRIC and Hazard Mitigation Assistance Grant funding call and webinars here.

The application deadline for the Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs funding for energy technology on Tribal lands is February 11th at 1pm AK time. The US Department of Energy expects to make between $10 and $15 million available for new awards under this funding opportunity. A recording of a webinar providing guidance is available on the Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs website.

Applications are open for UAF Research Experience for Undergraduates until February 15th. Two tracks are available including one open to undergraduates with Alaska Native heritage with an interest in oceanography in the Gulf of Alaska. Funding support from the U.S. National Science Foundation includes a stipend.

2021 Fisheries Technician Job Announcement

Hey everyone!
ONC fisheries is now preparing for the summer 2021 season and looking to recruit technicians and ANSEP interns. This is a great opportunity for highschool or university students to get experience working with a tribal organization fishery program.
Attached below is the fisheries technician announcement.
https://drive.google.com/file/d/10pIYgigDbqFU_pytm4melVOZAmNHtSKO/view?usp=sharing
Please have interested applicants send a resume & cover letter to Katie Russell [krussell@nativecouncil.org] and Danielle Lowrey [dlowrey@nativecouncil.org].
Quyana!

COMMUNITY SURVEY

ONC’s Environmental Program is hoping to gauge what environmental issues are most important to the community. We will put together resources for the community on these issues once they are identified. Please share your email at the end of the survey if you wish to receive resources directly. These resources will also be shared in a variety of ways late spring of 2021.

All participants in the survey will be entered into a drawing for gift card prizes!!

QUYANA for your participation!!

EPA Releases New Curriculum to Protect Children in Indian Country and Communities from Lead Exposure

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WASHINGTON (October 21, 2020) —As part of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) celebration of Children’s Health Month, the agency released a curriculum to help tribes and all communities protect children from potential lead exposure. The Lead Awareness in Indian Country: Keeping our Children Healthy! curriculum advances the Trump Administration’s commitment to the Federal Action Plan to Reduce Childhood Lead Exposures and Associated Health Impacts by providing practical, on-the-ground, community-based resources to reduce childhood lead exposure.

“EPA is dedicated to working closely with our partners to improve the health and safety of children,” said EPA Assistant Administrator for the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention Alexandra Dapolito Dunn. “Lead exposure disproportionately impacts children and this curriculum is an easy-to-use resource designed to empower tribes and other communities to take an active role in reducing childhood lead exposure.”

“We are pleased that this curriculum reflects the vision that EPA had from its inception that it would be built in close collaboration with tribes and would reflect tribal specific issues and solutions for all tribes and communities,” said Chair of the National Tribal Toxics Council Dianne Barton. “Our experiences with the pilots indicate that the curriculum’s materials can be easily tailored and modified to meet individual tribal program needs such as Head Start, tribal housing authority, maintenance or environmental education. The curriculum is beneficial and convenient for everyone to use in their own communities.”

EPA collaborated with the National Tribal Toxics Council and the National EPA-Tribal Science Council to develop the curriculum to include relevant tribal scenarios and cultural information to increase awareness and education in Indian country. As a result, the curriculum was developed in partnership with over 200 tribal representatives from approximately 80 different tribal governments and tribal organizations. These partners evaluated and enhanced materials by providing feedback during development or by attending one of seven curriculum pilots hosted by tribes and tribal organizations.

The Lead Awareness in Indian Country: Keeping our Children Healthy! curriculum is a series of four modules which include lesson plans, worksheets, key messages, presentation slides, and kids activity sheets that community leaders and other instructors can use to improve public awareness of the dangers associated with lead exposure and promote preventative actions. The design balances diverse community backgrounds, technical information and localized knowledge to allow instructors an opportunity to plan and deliver unique messages within each structured module. The format establishes a community-based platform where learning and teaching strategies come together to focus on meaningful community engagement.

The curriculum improves the understanding of lead’s potential impacts on children’s health and cultural practices and encourages actions that can be taken to reduce and/or prevent childhood lead exposure.

Since the 1970s, the United States has made tremendous progress in lowering children’s blood lead levels. Lead exposure, particularly at higher doses, continues to pose a significant health and safety threat to children, preventing them from reaching the fullest potential of their health, their intellect, and their future. No safe level of lead exposure has been identified for children, making them particularly vulnerable and underscoring that anything you can do to reduce exposure can improve life outcomes. 

To view the curriculum and learn more about EPA’s actions on lead, visit https://www.epa.gov/lead.