Agencies bring more information on Rivers Of Gold
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers called together a meeting Monday afternoon to clarify information on a scheme to mine among the salmon and other subsistence species in the delicate biome of Safety Sound.
For the most part, ACE Project Manager Leslie Tose’s presentation fell on angry ears of local people who wondered why they were the last to know, and why IPOP LLC, which is also planning to film a reality TV show under the name Rivers of Gold, would bring in equipment to mine the area with no permits.
IPOP is on the firing line for lack of advance information for public stakeholders in Safety Sound and the area community.
The company has been attempting to sell investors in a return on gold mining, a reality TV show, and sales of mining themed merchandise. Site for the operation would be in the waters of Safety Sound and the Bonanza Channel within the sound about 30 miles east of Nome.
However, before IPOP miners figure how many ounces of gold per square yard of gravel are recoverable, they must shovel through tons of permits and stand to find a yield of fines and citations.
The ACE mission oversees a system of permits, which govern reasonable development while protecting the nation’s aquatic resources. The agency operates under Sections 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act covering navigation and 404 of the Clean Water Act regulating construction activities that place dredges and fill into waters of the United States.
As of June 11, ACE had not received any applications for permits from IPOP. However, Mike Travis with Travis/Peterson Environmental Consulting, hired on by IPOP, told Tose and the people at Old St. Joe’s that the company intended to apply for required permits including permits for an equipment pad, a Nationwide Number 6 Permit (NWP) required for survey and exploration activities, and an individual mining permit.
The NWP is activity specific and involves an expedited review for projects of minimal impact individually and cumulatively. That permit takes about 45 days to process, according to Tose. NWP #6 covers exploration activities as trenching, bulk samples, core drilling, wetland determinations, Tose said. Normally, the NWP #6 activities would need no agency coordination.
However, the IPOP proposal was unusual in that no exploration has occurred. The project will require both general national conditions and regional requirements to keep the operator in compliance with the Endangered Species Act.
Mining in Safety Sound would affect two seal species, making necessary a consultation with federal agency NOAA. The presence of all five species of salmon in Safety Sound requires coordination with federal, state, local and tribal governments. Additionally there are special aquatic sites concerning mud flats, beach grass, vegetated shallows wetlands and eel grass.
In the audience, local fish biologist Charlie Lean rose to eel grass, saying the plant was very important as a habitat and shelter for salmon food sources.
The IPOP project would affect four to six tribes. Coordination must be developed with a tribal liaison.
The ACE will need core samples, bathymetry, survey of special aquatic sites, and benthic delineation. IPOP must describe the project over the next five years and provide the proposal to federal, state, local and tribal governments for comments on the merits of the proposal. If IPOP could wade through the NWP # 6 proposal, then to operate a dredge in Safety Sound, IPOP would have to obtain an individual permit, Tose said. That would entail full public notice and comment—30 plus days—normally a 90 to 120 day process; an investigation of substantive issues including salmon, endangered species and subsistence food gathering activity. She had already sent a letter to the company concerning ‘more information needed,” Tose said. “It stands to be complicated,” she said, concerning salmon, endangered species, tribal subsistence uses and other issues.
The Dept. of Natural Resources facilitates the Application for Permits to Mine in Alaska, Charlene Bringhurst with DNR Division of Mining Land and Water said. The miner fills out 25 pages of detail; the document goes to agencies including EPA, DEC, NOAA, state Dept. of Fish and Game.
As it stands, because Tose has verified that the company has no permits, and IPOP has received written notice from ACE, any violations would be “flagrant and knowing, which raises the bar,” Tose declared.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency leads enforcement measures for actions that go ahead without a permit. On top of that, getting involved can mean trouble for contractors, as the EPA and the ACE can also cite the people who provide gravel and supplies, as well as contractors and operators.
A person in the audience asked whether or not the permitting would require a study for the presents of archaeological resources. Absolutely, Tose said. Historical resources consultation is a requirement early on under NWP #6.
So, should one observe noncompliant activities going on, where does one file a report, Scott Kent asked. Norton Sound chum salmon had declined in the 1990s and subsistence food gathering had suffered a hit and then started to recover in 2013, he explained. Whom to notify for action? Subsistence was a substantive issue, Tose said. One would notify the EPA. Another question came up. If a company does not have a great history of compliance, would that be a factor in consideration for permitting? Not in permitting, but in compliance and enforcement issues, that is considered, according to Tose.
The agency isn’t in the business of denying permits, Tose said. “We give everyone a fair shake.”
Gay Sheffield, with University of Alaska Sea Grant Program spoke up on the side of seals. Three or four species use Safety Sound, she said. She feared that Safety Sound was “under-recognized as a nursery and place of refuge for seals. The Sound has protection from predators and has small fish for seals to eat.
This is another substantive issue, Tose said.
Often the data the agencies have is from far off, like the North Slope, Sheffield offered. “We are a different system.”
Many Native land allotments lie in the Safety Sound area, owned by allottees, according to Francine Johnson, a land management specialist at Kawerak, Inc.
“This is a substantive Native and subsistence issue,” Johnson said.
“We all have bits and pieces, what are the proposals?” Howard Farley, commercial fisherman, asked.
“We have subsistence there and you want to go in for gold, for monetary reasons?” asked Janet Carlisle. Maybe folks did not want IPOP there, Janet Carlisle, a part owner of a different mining enterprise, said.
Mike Travis, agent for IPOP, took the podium. Travis said IPOP had been working with local folks — Jackie Johnson and Rob Cahoon.
The operation would use a 10-inch hose and a cutter head “25 percent larger,” he said, when asked to describe the operation. The operation sucks up the sand and filters it for gold using centrifuges, he said.
Calling out from the audience, Colby Engstrom, himself from a multigenerational mining family, said that IPOP has equipment in town and was planning to operate in Safety Sound today, but Travis could not describe the equipment.
The company was going to supply only general answers and grease the wheels and slide in, Engstrom observed. “They don’t want to do the process,” he said, without any exploration. “Everyone who lives here knows it wouldn’t be profitable. If there were gold there [Safety Sound], that land would already have been destroyed.”
Travis said he did not know why mining equipment had already arrived; he wouldn’t have done this. He assured the gathering he that the company would go through the permitting process. It would work out, he assured the audience.
Mary David, an executive with Kawerak wanted to know how exploration differed from active mining as far as seals, birds and water quality were concerned.
Cynthia Gray, Solomon Native Corp. put it on the line: “I feel like a hostile individual. I had no prior information on this. Get your ducks in a row,” Gray told Travis sternly. “We have to comply with regulations, your company has to comply. How do you go ahead with a firm that wants to do so much damage?” People in the area had grown up using fish and subsistence in the area. They felt “pretty damned protective,” Gray added. She did not need a microphone to make herself heard.
Tose said agencies would be going to Safety Sound for a site visit June 12.