Photo by Artyom Korshunov/Unsplash

Residents of the Native village of Elim are asking the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for a government-to-government consultation with the Tribe prior to authorizing any permit for uranium mining activity by a Canadian-based mining company in an area they say is critical to subsistence. 

The community of some 330 people, southeast of Nome via the Iditarod Trail, is working with the Norton Bay Watershed Council on its request to the BLM. Both the watershed council and residents of the Inupiaq village are concerned because planned exploration at the Boulder Creek uranium property lies at the headwaters of the Tubutulik River Watershed, nearly 100 miles east of Nome, a critical subsistence area for the community. 

“We are defined by economists as a ‘subsistence economy with a cash over-lay,’” said Emily Murray, a resident of Elin and vice president of the Norton Bay Watershed Council. “This new mining company plans to expand their exploration activities even beyond those of the original one. Turning our river into a uranium mining district will completely destroy our way of life.”  

Murry is also a teacher at Aniguiin School in Elim, where she works with students on research on the impact of uranium on community health. 

She said during a June 10 interview that the watershed council is already doing its own testing of the Tubutulik River Watershed to document water conditions in that subsistence fishery. Area residents living a subsistence lifestyle contend that a uranium mine in the area of the watershed could have an adverse impact on salmon spawning and rearing areas and impede recovery efforts conducted by the community, as well as exacerbate declines in fish and wildlife populations due to impacts from climate change and human health.   
Panther Minerals, with offices in Vancouver, British Columbia, recently announced plans for its summer 2024 exploration program and is in the process of applying for the required permits from the Alaska Department of Natural Resources and the BLM for construction of a camp and reconstruction of an all-terrain vehicle trail to the property. 

The mineral site was discovered in 1977 by means of airborne radiometric data, an area identified by the mining firm as the most northerly known sandstone-type uranium property in the world. The property was most recently explored by Triex Mineral Corp. between 2006 and 2008, with Triex conducting soil and bio-geochemical surveys, along with surface prospecting and airborne radiometric surveys and completed 22 core holes, according to Panther Minerals. 

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David Hedderly-Smith, who owns the federal mining claims in the Boulder Creek area, is a paid consultant for Panther Minerals. A consulting geologist in Poulsbo, Washington, he holds a doctorate in geology and geochemistry, economic geology and geochemistry from the University of Utah. 

Hedderly-Smith recently told Nome radio station KNOM that “we’re not trying to sneak this by anybody. We want to be pretty forthright about what we’re doing.” Hedderly-Smith, who has also served as deputy director for minerals in the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, also maintains that after a career that took him to many rural Alaska communities he understands Alaska Natives “probably better than 99% of Alaskans.”  

But the Native Village of Elim says they have not been properly consulted, and the watershed council contends that the BLM has not responded to its repeated requests for copies of the mining exploration permit application submitted by Panther Minerals. 

Alaska Community Action on Toxics has noted that both uranium and arsenic are easily leached from rock by water and that disturbing the environment with a large-scale mining operation could potentially release these toxic materials.  

“Uranium mining in Alaska poses direct threats to the environment and local people,” ACAT said in a published document on uranium mining. “The environmental impacts of uranium mining are especially important in light of the subsistence way of life of many Alaskan Natives. The environmental degradation associated with uranium mining can impact not only the immediate ecosystems, but also the health of individuals and the cultural prosperity of villages.” 

Extraction of nonrenewable resources — from the oilfields of Alaska’s North Slope to copper, gold, molybdenum and ore deposits abutting the Bristol Bay watershed — has for several decades been a source of controversy between mining companies and conservation and Alaska Native entities in areas where many residents depend in part or as a whole on subsistence hunting and fishing. 

The millions of wild salmon who return annually to Bristol Bay provide for multi-million dollar commercial and sport fisheries, as well as sustenance of hundreds of area residents and wildlife. The controversy is heightened in part by the fact that some Alaska Native corporations are invested in profitable businesses that provide services for these companies engaged in the extraction of nonrenewable resources, as well as jobs for some of their shareholders. 

Alaska’s congressional delegation has also taken a stand on related issues, including the Interior Department’s efforts to restrict specific resource development in Alaska, including oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and a road to the Ambler mining district in northwest Alaska.  

While the Arctic Slope Regional Corp. and others support the oil exploration, subsistence residents of the Fort Yukon area north of Fairbanks oppose mineral extraction projects that stand to have an adverse impact on more than 200,000 caribou who migrate annually through the refuge, including calving areas sacred to Gwitchin Athabascans.  

In early May, NANA Regional Corp., based in Kotzebue, announced that it would not renew a land use permit for the Ambler Access Project, a road that the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority proposed to build through the Brooks Range to a commercial mining area in the Arctic. NANA issued a statement saying its decision “reflects unmet criteria, insufficient consultation, and a lack of confidence in the project’s alignment with our values and community interests.”   

“NANA upholds a rich legacy of responsible resource development in our region, guided by a commitment to protect and advance our Inupiat way of life,” the corporation said. 

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