Long-awaited final EIS for Donlin nears release

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will publish its recommendations for the large Donlin Gold mine project in Western Alaska next Friday, April 27, Alaska District officials said Thursday.

The Corps of Engineers has been working on the environmental impact statement, or EIS, for the open-pit gold mine proposal in the upper Kuskowkim River drainage since December 2012. A schedule for the EIS on the agency’s website for the project states the Corps hoped to have the final version of the massive environmental review document published sometime in March.

Donlin spokesman Kurt Parkan said the company has been working on the mine for 22 years since initial exploration work began.

“It’s a good day. We’re happy that we’ve reached (the final EIS). That’s a big milestone,” Parkan said in a brief interview.

Corps of Engineers Alaska District officials who oversaw the drafting of the Donlin EIS held a media availability and a scoping meeting in Anchorage at the Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center on Thursday to solicit comments on the EIS for the Pebble gold and copper mine.

Unlike a draft EIS — Donlin’s draft was published in November 2015 — a final EIS includes the oversight agency’s recommendations on how a project can be adjusted to minimize its environmental impacts. A “no action alternative,” or a recommendation to not approve the project, can also be selected.

Donlin Gold estimates the mine and associated infrastructure that includes a natural gas pipeline from west Cook Inlet and fuel storage all the way in Dutch Harbor, will cost $6.7 billion based on its plan from a 2011 feasibility study.

Parkan said the next steps will be getting a record of decision from the Corps later this year as well as securing numerous other permits, among them approvals for water discharge, waste management and a tailings dam safety permit that will evenually require additional geotechnical drilling.

After the permits are secured company leaders will reevaluate the project’s economics, which they acknowledge are subject to the volatility of gold prices, and begin the search for financing if the project pencils out.

“That is the plan and we’re working on ways to reduce the capital cost,” Parkan added.

A true mega-project, Donlin Gold’s is for a conventional open-pit mine 1.5 miles across and up to 1,200 feet deep about 10 miles north of the village of Crooked Creek in the Upper Kuskokwim River drainage. A tailings facility, large power plant, workers’ camp and 5,000-foot airstrip would accompany the mine.

As planned by Donlin, a joint venture between Barrick Gold Corp. and NovaGold Resources Inc., the mine would produce about 1.1 million ounces of gold per year over a 27-year mine life for a total of about 33 million ounces of the precious metal, making it one of the largest open-pit gold mines on Earth.

The mine site, on lands owned by The Kuskokwim Corp. and Calista Corp., the area village and regional Native corporations, respectively, would also include a fully lined, 2,300-acre tailings facility to store the processed ore.

Support infrastructure would include a 315-mile, 14-inch diameter natural gas pipeline originating on the west side of Cook Inlet needed to supply fuel to the 227-megawatt capacity power plant at the mine site.

The pipeline has also been viewed as a first, indirect step to getting lower cost natural gas to numerous villages in Western Alaska that currently rely on fuel oil their primary heat and electricity sources.

A 30-mile road would connect the mine to a new barge port on the Kuskokwim. Further down the Kuskokwim, port cargo facilities would be expanded in Bethel, and new diesel storage tanks would be needed Dutch Harbor to supply fuel for equipment at the mine.

In all, the direct supply chain in Donlin’s proposal from Cook Inlet to Dutch Harbor would cover approximately 1,050 miles.

Donlin Gold leaders acknowledge the project is more sensitive to gold prices than even other Alaska prospects simply because of its associated infrastructure costs. Company officials have said the project would not be economic at gold prices of about $1,100 per ounce.

Gold was selling for about $1,355 per ounce in spot trading on Thursday.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

05/11/2018 - 11:12am