Dunleavy Administration Admits it Rubber-Stamped Highly Flawed Permit for Donlin Mine
Government bureaucrats love to highlight Alaska’s work protecting our environment, because it helps sell the idea that Alaska’s “open for business.” The big mining, oil and gas corporations also like […]
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Government bureaucrats love to highlight Alaska’s work protecting our environment, because it helps sell the idea that Alaska’s “open for business.” The big mining, oil and gas corporations also like to tout Alaska’s green bona fides, because it helps insulate them from public criticism. 

There’s only one problem: it’s all a lie.

That’s because Alaska’s permitting system has one primary goal: to issue permits. That’s it. While politicians and industry trade groups pay lip service to protecting our wild fish streams and local communities, the fact is the State of Alaska has NEVER denied a permit for a large oil, gas or mining project in the past 25 years. Never. No matter how big or sweeping the impacts, the state’s permitting machine always stamps-out a permit. Always.

The Alaska Department of Natural Resources recently showcased this disconnect in a remarkable decision involving the proposed Donlin gold mine.

On April 30, DNR Commissioner Corri Feige wrote to Inletkeeper with a damning confession: she and her agency had completely ignored the law – and the Alaska Constitution – when rubber-stamping the right-of-way authorization for the 315 mile-long natural gas pipeline from Cook Inlet to the proposed mine site on the Kuskokwim River. 

What’s the problem? Under the Alaska Constitution, we Alaskans own our fish and water resources, and the state is charged with managing them in the public interest for current and future generations.  

Inletkeeper and various Alaska Tribes urged the State to take a “hard look” at the various impacts to fish, wildlife and people likely to flow from the pipeline.  Among other things, the pipeline would cut and dredge through hundreds of wild fish streams, and the state should ensure these incredible resources get the protections they need. And the pipeline would open a gaping swath of undeveloped Alaska to new threats from more roads, pipelines and mines.

Yet rather than conduct a comprehensive analysis, DNR simply ignored a full range of issues – not just once, but twice.

So, Inletkeeper and its Tribal partners – including the Orutsararmiut Native Council, Chevak Native Village, Chuloonakwick Native Village and the Native Village of Eek – were pressed to do what they should never have to do: file a lawsuit to force Commissioner Feige and DNR to do their jobs.

The Alaska court system is unique because it embraces an old “fee shifting” rule that requires the losing party to pay the fees and costs of the winning party.  Virtually every other state provides for the parties to bear their own costs and fees. So, because government agencies get a lot of deference from the courts, suing a state agency presents considerable risks for Alaskans.

But in the case of the Donlin pipeline, DNR’s permit decision was so horribly misguided, Inletkeeper and its Tribal partners had no choice but to sue, and the agency itself decided to reconsider its original decision rather than suffer a hearty slap-down in state court.  

So much for the state’s “rigorous review and analysis” Commissioner Feige likes to cite.  

DNR’s 180 degree reversal is rare and remarkable, and it tells an important story: the State of Alaska will side with large oil, gas and mining companies every time. And it takes Alaskans who care about our great state to stand up and take risks to make our bureaucrats and our agencies comply with the law. Otherwise they will simply rubber-stamp major projects like the Donlin pipeline and the Pebble mine without a second thought.

Earthjustice lawyers represented Inletkeeper and the Tribes in this proceeding.