Three Alaska tribes are suing the federal government to block a gold mine in Southwest Alaska.
As Rhonda McBride from our flagship station KNBA reports, the lawsuit also impacts two Alaska Native corporations, which are partners in the project.
The proposed Donlin Gold Mine sits near the upper reaches of the Kuskokwim – one of Alaska’s two largest rivers – remote and rich with wildlife.
The mine’s developers say it also has the potential to be one of the biggest gold mines in the world.
Opponents say the massive open pit mine that’s envisioned is just too risky.
Earth Justice is representing the three tribes that have filed suit – the Orutsararmiut Native Council, which is based in Bethel, the Organized Village of Kwethluk and the Tuluksak Native Community.
The suit, which was filed in U.S. District Court, challenges the Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Donlin project. It names the Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Land Management and the Interior Department as defendants in the case.
The suit says the mine threatens lands and waters that tribes have relied upon for food and drinking water for time immemorial, as well as for culture, ceremony and passing on traditions.
The lawsuit claims that mining tailings or spills from barges carrying toxic substances like cyanide and mercury could destroy fisheries and wildlife habitat.
Two Canadian companies, Barrick Gold and Nova Gold, are co-owners of the mine, which pits the tribal groups against two Alaska Native Corporations, which are partners in the project.
The Kuskokwim Corporation, a consortium of ten village corporations, owns the land. Calista, a regional corporation, owns the mineral rights. Both have touted the mine as a golden opportunity that could bring jobs, infrastructure and affordable energy to one of the most cash-starved regions of the state.
Alaska’s other Native Corporations also have a stake in this project, under a profit-sharing mechanism in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act – which created the corporations and sets aside 70 percent of the profits from natural resource development, to be split among twelve regional Native Corporations.
In a news release, Donlin Gold said the lawsuit is without merit and is confident the decisions made by the federal agencies involved will be upheld.
An organization is examining water quality and access on tribal lands.
KUNC’s Emma VandenEinde took a trip to the border of Arizona and New Mexico to learn more.
Taishiana Tsosie and Kimberly Belone are standing in the dark, in an office bathroom on the Navajo Nation.
They’re holding up plastic bags filled with water from the sink.
Belone shines a blacklight on one of the bags.
Tsosie says that will help find contaminants.
“What we’re looking for is…basically if it’s glowing really, really bad.”
Belone and Tsosie don’t think there’s any E Coli. But they see harmless bacteria in some of the numbered bag compartments.
BELONE: “I think two and three on both of them are fluorescent.” TSOSIE: “I was thinking three, and I don’t think yours is.”BELONE: “Really?” TSOSIE: “Yeah.”
This test is a crucial part of their Diné Household Water Survey conducted by the Johns Hopkins Center for Indigenous Health. It aims to learn more about water on the Navajo Nation.
Estimates about water access and quality vary widely.
The Indian Health Service says just over 9 percent of Native people lack good sanitation, but the Water and Tribes Initiative reports that number is as high as 48%.
And the problem is concentrated in the arid southwest – from the Navajo Nation to the Rio Grande pueblos.
TSOSIE: “Well, since the Rio Grande is so close to Albuquerque metropolitan area that they’re finally experiencing what we have been experiencing here.”
Tsosie is familiar with these water issues from her childhood.
“I did live with my grandmother and she didn’t have piped or running water growing up. So we would have to, you know, use the bathroom outside.”
After she and her mom moved out, Tsosie got access to…some running water.
“It wasn’t great water. It was kind of yellow, but we were still safe enough to bathe and never drank it.”
Tsosie hopes the survey results can highlight a vital resource their nation needs. Belone agrees.
“That’s the thing. It is a basic thing. Everyone should be entitled to running water and all of that. ”
Tune in for Part 2 to see how the survey works.
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