Tribes sue to stop Donlin Gold mine

Litigation focuses on environmental impact of the mine on lands and waters, including salmon habitat

Tribes representing Alaska Native people in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta have filed a federal lawsuit challenging on environmental grounds federal approval of permits that would allow for construction of the Donlin Gold Mine.

The 29-page lawsuit was filed in Anchorage on April 5 by the environmental law firm Earthjustice on behalf of Orutsararmiut Native Council in Bethel, Tuluksak Native Community, and the Organized Village of Kwetluk. Defendants in the case are the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and the Department of the Interior (DOI).

Donlin has estimated the project will take three to four years to construct, and have an active mine life of some 27 years. Mine site facilities would include the open pit, a waste rock facility, a mill plant, tailings storage facility, power plant, and water management structures including a wastewater treatment plant. Donlin estimated the mine would produce about one million ounces of gold annually.

The waste rock pile would be up to 1,115 feet tall and span 2,500 acres, some of which is important salmon habitat.

Plaintiffs are challenging the final environmental impact statement (EIS) and joint Record of Decision issued by the federal agencies permitting the filling of wetlands and a right-of-way authorization for a pipeline issued by the defendants.

“Donlin Gold’s stakeholders fully believe that the lawsuit filed by Earthjustice is meritless, and are confident the record will once again fully support the regulating agencies’ decisions,” Kristina Woolston, Donlin’s external affairs manager, told the Cordova Times in a statement.


The open pit, hard rock gold mine site lies on Native lands, including the surface estate owned by The Kuskokwim Corp., and the subsurface, owned by Calista Corp. an Alaska Native regional corporation created under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

Donlin Gold LLC is owned jointly by Barrick Gold US Inc. and NovaGold Resources Alaska, Inc.

Plaintiffs contend that the Donlin project would harm the Kuskokwim River and surrounding lands and waters, which tribal groups have relied on since time immemorial to provide food, drinking water, and contributions to their cultural traditions. The lawsuit contends that mine development would limit subsistence uses and imperil ecosystems and fisheries in the Kuskokwim River and surrounding lands and waters, with impacts on people and communities throughout the Yukon-Kuskokwim region.

Mine development would introduce the risk of catastrophic tailings or chemical spills, and also increase the risk of death and injury from barging accidents by tripling the number of barges on the Kuskokwim River, with each barge for the Donlin project up to four times as large as current barges, said Sophia Swope, director of the Mother Kuskokwim Tribal Coalition.

The tribes want the federal agencies to be required to study impacts on downstream waters and villages from a potentially catastrophic tailings dam failure, which the agencies refused to do in the EIS. They also want federal agencies to consider and prevent predicted impacts to Kuskokwim River rainbow smelt, which are an important subsistence food source for the region and a key prey species for salmon. The tribes also want the court to require these agencies to address serious human health concerns identified by the Alaska Department of Health, which they said are ignored in the EIS.

The full list of tribes formally opposed to the mine includes Orutsararmiut Native Council, Native Village of Eek, Kasigluk Traditional Council, Native Village of Kwigillingok, Chuloonawick Native Village, Native Village of Kongiganak, Native Village of Tununak, Chevak Native Village, Native Village of Napakiak, Chefornak Traditional Council, Nightmute Traditional Council, Native Village of Nunapitchuk, Kwinhagak Tribal Council, Tuluksak Tribal Council, Organized Village of Kwethluk, and Aniak Traditional Council.

Correction: The headline of this article was corrected on April 25 to more accurately reflect the nature of the lawsuit. The previous headline read “Yukon Kuskokwim moms sue to stop Donlin Gold mine.” The story was also updated to include a statement from Donlin Gold mine.