Council approves Moonlight Springs mining permit
By Diana Haecker
The Nome Common Council in a 4-1 vote (with one abstention) approved Northwest Gold Digger LLC’s permit application to mine within the boundary of the Moonlight Wells Protective area. Shawn Pomrenke, the applicant, his family and project supporters were present as the Council mulled the pros and cons of allowing the placer mining project to go forward. Pomrenke and his father Steve have a long history of mining and reclaiming mine sites in Nome. Currently, they mine in the same vicinity but propose to extend their mining efforts uphill from the old Glacier Creek Road, about half a mile east of the Moonlight Springs wells, which are the source of Nome’s drinking water supply.
City Manager Glenn Steckman pointed out that they were in violation of their permit in 2019 when mining took place without a proper permit inside the Moonlight Wells protective area, but once they were notified of the violation, they ceased immediately.
Now, with permit application in hand, Pomrenke asked to mine there properly. City Engineer John Blees as well as a geologist who had extensively studied Moonlight Springs Dr. Don Stevens were present via Zoom to answer questions.
Community concerns voiced via comments at the last Council meeting centered on the specter of arsenic entering and poisoning the water gallery. Even though arsenic is naturally occurring there, the argument was that the mine site’s water flow would go in the opposite direction from the wells and drain in a southeast direction. Dr. Stevens also said that although mining had been done in the area in the past, none of the testing has shown arsenic at the Moonlight Springs aquifer. When asked his opinion on the permit application under discussion, he said that he doesn’t think the operation would disturb the well water.
Ken Morton with NJUS confirmed that nobody has been able to confirm the recharge area of the aquifer and that “nobody can tell you that this is a no risk proposition,” he said. “But there is a general sense that it can be done reasonably.” He pointed out that NJUS draws 210 million gallons per year from the water gallery and if the wells would become contaminated it would come at a significant capital cost to the city to clean it up.
The Council amended the resolution to grant the permit by adding conditions: that there are regular site visits by the city engineer to control the mine site; that a soil survey is done to measure arsenic levels in the mining area; that mining ceases immediately when the miners hit bedrock and that mining ceases immediately and the area will be backfilled with high fines when groundwater seeps or standing water is encountered. To avoid any gas storage and potential oil spills, the applicant also agreed to keep the wash plant out of the protected area. During the public comment period, Ken Hughes, Derek McLarty, Christine Pomrenke and Jeff Darling spoke in support of the project.
They cited the economic benefits to the community and city the project would bring. Janet Balice offered comment in opposition to mining near the city’s water source.
When it came to the vote, Mark Johnson abstained, declaring a conflict of interest since he’s the applicant’s accountant. Jerald Brown, Jennifer Reader, Doug Johnson and Adam Martinson voted yes, Megan Sigvanna Topkok cast a no vote.
In other business, the Council passed in second reading an ordinance to dial back the summer sales tax from 7 to 5 percent. The Council also passed a resolution to decrease the property tax mill rate from 13 to 12 mill, effectively lowering the property tax for property owners in Nome proper.
In public comment, the Council heard from Chuck Fagerstrom and Drew McCann the plea to decisively act on the problem of public drunkenness on Front Street and to do something about it. The new manager of the AC Quick Stop liquor store stepped to the podium and pledged cooperation and his willingness to be part of the solution. In other public comment, Carlee Hobbs asked the city to present balanced information when it comes to pushing COVID vaccinations on people and she took exception to Norton Sound Health Corporation’s policy to terminate employees who do not agree to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Councilmember Mark Johnson, in response to public drunkeness concerns, suggested that the Council schedule a work session on the issue and to become part of the solution.
Mayor John Handeland nominated Briday Green for a seat at the Public Safety Advisory Commission and the Council voted unanimously to approve the appointment.