Swans gather at Bonanza Channel in this file photo taken in May.

IPOP permit approval causes local shock and frustration

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers made an announcement two weeks ago that surprised many in the Nome region.
A Hawaii-based general with the Corps reversed an Alaska District Army Corps decision on IPOP, LLC’s controversial mining plan. The Nevada-based company now has a federal permit necessary to dredge for gold in the Bonanza Channel estuary near Solomon.
“For the denial to be overturned and for this to be approved in any capacity given their track record is just unbelievable,” said Kirsten Timbers, president of the Village of Solomon, the tribe closest to the project area.
Melanie Bahnke, president and CEO of Kawerak, also said she was “taken aback and extremely disappointed by this news.”   
“Kawerak has a resource development policy that guides us in taking a stance on projects, and our organization is not necessarily anti-development,” Bahnke said. “Kawerak does, however, place a high priority on ensuring that our subsistence way of life is not threatened, and this project will be damaging to the environment and natural resources relied upon by both Native and non-Natives in the Nome area.”
IPOP’s permit, which is now online, shows that the company slightly shrank the footprint of its planned operations. But the essential components of its proposal remain the same: IPOP wants to set up a man camp and staging area around mile 28.5 of the Nome-Council Highway. From there, the company will dredge an access channel to reach Bonanza Channel. IPOP plans to mine for gold along a 3-mile area of Bonanza Channel, dredging about 4.5 million cubic yards (down from an originally proposed 4.9 million cubic yards) over five years. The company will impact a total area of about 159.4 acres, down from a proposed footprint of 192.5 acres. Its equipment includes a dredge vessel with a 36-inch cutterhead. Material dredged during the project will be piled in the water next to the dredged areas, creating temporary mudflats until that sediment can be used for reclamation activities.
“The permit was signed, and the permit is considered final and active,” said Susan Lee, a public affairs officer with the Corps’ Pacific Ocean Division.  
Lee said that the Corps considered public input from the two public comment periods that occurred in July 2020 and April 2021.
A new public comment period was not opened during the permit reevaluation, Lee explained, because “changes to the current project were not substantial enough to necessitate a new public review.”
But residents and groups opposed to the project are left with few answers as they try to understand how these changes were substantial enough to warrant an approval that was previously denied.
IPOP arrived in Nome in 2018 with mining equipment but no permit to mine and no track record of mining in Alaska. The group initially pitched the operation as part of a gold-mining reality TV show. The company and its investors have sued the Corps several times as they perceived that the quest for a federal mining permit dragged on. IPOP and its associates have claimed that local Alaska Native organizations are engaged in a “conspiracy” against them and that the wetlands they want to mine are not important for wildlife or subsistence.
IPOP’s project had garnered concern from groups like Kawerak, the Village of Solomon, Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation and Bering Straits Native Corporation. Federal managers at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service also recommended that the permit be denied. In 2022, Colonel Damon Delarosa, then-commander of the Alaska District, agreed with many of the concerns put forth. In his lengthy decision document, Delarosa explained that the impacts to the environment and subsistence opportunities would be significant, and that IPOP’s plan would be contrary to the public interest.
It’s still unclear how Delarosa’s superior in Hawaii decided the opposite after looking at the same arguments furnished by the public and various government agencies.
Brigadier General Kirk Gibbs, the division engineer of the Pacific Ocean Division, said in a short statement last month that he determined the “revised project is permittable and not contrary to the public interest.”
The Corps has thus far declined to provide more insight about what led to this determination. The Nugget has submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for more documents related to the decision.
A delegation from the Pacific Ocean Division visited Nome last week to meet with the Village of Solomon but declined to provide answers about the reversal. The Corps at that time did not even have the text of the permit to share with the tribe’s council.
“We feel deeply upset by the process,” said Timbers. She and other council members felt like they had a trusting relationship with the Corps that seems to have been taken for granted and not honored given the lack of information since the permits’ approval.
“It calls into question the commitment of the federal government to uphold true tribal consultation and recognize us as a sovereign entity that they have a responsibility to treat as an equal,” Timbers said. “We’ve had to educate ourselves on all of these processes to ensure that our engagement and comments were relevant and appropriate and evidenced. We’ve done all those things. I feel like we have put our best efforts forward and for the denial to be overturned is really upsetting. And I think it has the potential to impact our ability to provide for our families for our natural environment to exist as it has for thousands of years with regard to the salmon, the eel grass, the migratory birds.”
Timbers noted that throughout the public comment periods that occurred for IPOP’s project, there was good representation from all aspects of the local community, including the mining community—all overwhelming voicing opposition to IPOP.
“I think it really begs the question, why bother?” Timbers said. “What would it actually take for any of that to matter? Why would we take the time as a concerned community member?”
Bahnke, too, was present at the meeting with the Corps in Nome last Tuesday. She said she was “dismayed about the lack of regard for the decision that has been made.”
“Not one of the people representing the [Corps] in the room have even been to the area they are granting IPOP a permit for, and because of the way that the [Corps} transfers leadership every two years, they won’t be in their current positions for much longer,” Bahnke said.
Bahnke and Timbers were also concerned that IPOP will be expected to self-report any violations and exceptions to their permit.
“This is the fox guarding the hen-house, so to say,” Bahnke said. “It is unacceptable to grant a permit like this and to rely on the self-reporting of the permittee to ensure that they comply with the laws and regulations governing the permit.”
She was also troubled by IPOP’s recent history in the region.
“IPOP has outright lied in documents they’ve submitted to the court systems, alleging that Native corporations have ‘colluded’ with the [Corps] to halt this project, among other falsehoods,” Bahnke said. “The company is an entertainment company with no history of resource extraction in Alaska, no ties to Alaska, and therefore not beholden to Alaskans, let alone the people in this region. Their previous attempt to push forward without the proper permitting in place gives me great pause about their willingness to abide by regulations and laws.”
Representatives of IPOP could not be reached for comment.
For now, the local entities opposing the project are looking at other options for action.
IPOP still needs permits from state agencies like the Alaska Department of Natural Resources before it can begin operations. Timbers said she hoped the State of Alaska would hold up its end of an agreement it made with BSNC and Solomon Native Corporation in the 1970s during the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). The state was conveyed coastal lands along the Bonanza/Safety Sound area—in exchange for protection of the wetlands in that region and recognition that it was a significant subsistence area.
Bahnke said that Kawerak was “exploring all avenues to prevent this project from moving forward” and was seeking to “partner with other groups who have an interest in protecting this fragile estuary.”
She said one possible option would be to request a government-to-government consultation with the very highest level of the Corps because Kawerak and its partners do not feel that this process has been fair and transparent.


The Nome Nugget

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Nome, Alaska 99762

Phone: (907) 443-5235
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