Seal pups rest on an ice floe at Bonanza Channel.

Army Corps hosts meeting on IPOP

During a Monday web-supported meeting hosted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the public had the chance to hear a summary of the proposed IPOP gold mine at Bonanza Channel and provide comment on the project. Over the entire two hours of comment and questions directed at the federal and state regulators who were present on the call, not one comment was in favor of the project.
IPOP LLC is a Las Vegas, Nevada-based venture with no track record of actual mining experience. The company proposes to dredge for gold on state claims they secured in the Bonanza Channel, utilizing a cutterhead dredge. The proposed plan is to construct and dredge an access channel to the claims, to dredge disposal areas, a mining channel and to build a mining camp and staging area and a boat launch. The project area is roughly between mile 27 and mile 29 of the Nome-Council Highway.
At one point, somebody asked in the Chat box during the web-meeting what IPOP stands for and the company’s Alaska agent William Burnett answered: Intelligent Practices Operator.
While the project is proposed to take place on state mining claims, and is surrounded by Solomon Native Corporation lands, to which BSNC owns the sub-surface rights and state lands. Matt Ganley, consultant to Bering Straits Native Corporation, provided information that has not surfaced before. Ganley pointed to a settlement agreement between the state, Solomon Native Corporation and BSNC which land conveyance issues. This 1979 agreement established guidance for land management affecting exactly the areas that IPOP plans to mine. The agreement states that the state, upon conveyance to it of all lands described in Article 2, and within each section embracing the drainage of the Bonanza River and its tributaries and the coastal lands east of Solomon, shall classify such lands for public retention for the purposes of protecting fish and wildlife values, providing public recreation and permitting subsistence uses in accordance with applicable law.”  
In a letter to the Army Corps, BSNC’s CEO Gail Schubert concluded, “BSNC objects to the IPOP project not only because of the ongoing importance of the Bonanza/Safety Sound area to our shareholders’ subsistence needs, but also because the state, through the agreement of 1979, specifically designated the land’s highest and best use as subsistence and recreation. Mining in this sensitive area is in direct opposition to the intent and spirit of the settlement agreement.”
Nome resident Chandre Szafran provided extensive comment, touching on cultural and food related issues. She said that the comments do not reflect a referendum on mining in general as her own family has a background in mining.  However, she takes issue with this particular mining concern in this particular location.
“First, the area is widely used for food security, which the Army Corps has expressed is really important to them, as well as non-food related cultural activities. Both cultural activities and food are inextricable from the lifeways here in this sub-Arctic region—for both Indigenous peoples, and non-Indigenous peoples,” Szafran said.
“When it comes to food security, the area is abundant in subsistence resources, with harvests of multiple species of fish, seals, birds and their eggs, greens and berries, happening year-round. Subsistence is culturally and nutritionally crucial to Indigenous lifeways. And, the cost of living in fly-in only communities in the extreme climate of the sub-Arctic is extremely high, making subsistence an absolute necessity,” she testified.
 The area, she said, is crucial as a subsistence resource because it’s accessible to local residents. Not only Nome residents but people from around the region use the area. “This mining proposal is accompanied by increased human activity on both the land and water,” she said.
“Critical subsistence resources and cultural activities of a large proportion of local and regional residents should not be ignored for the benefit for a small handful of people who will cause this level of disruption, who will make this disruptive impact, and then leave,” she said. She added that her comments are supported by many who signed a petition on which garnered “local and regional signatures who do not want this mine, in this area, for these reasons. Please listen to us,” she said.
Roy Ashenfelter asked why the Corps keeps coming back with the same questions to the public. He pointed to the fact that the public has commented on the project numerous times and has yet to hear back from the applicant or the regulators. In way of explanation, the Corps’ officials said that the project is now in the phase where public comment is taken to inform the decision by the Corps.
UAF Alaska Sea Grant Agent Gay Sheffield said the lagoon system is habitat for four ice seal species. Three of those, spotted, ringed and bearded seals, utilize the lagoons in the spring as a nursery area for their seal pups. Out of those three species, two – ringed and bearded seals – are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. If IPOP plans to dig for gold there, they need to ask for a ‘take’ permit from NOAA to be allowed to disturb the seals. She also provided a look at the bigger picture and reminded the Corps and the State agencies that the entire Bering Sea is undergoing a massive change, environmentally, ecologically and industrially. “Please understand the amount of stress this region is under,” she said. The norther Bering Sea lost its thermal barrier, there is a massive influx of large predatory fish, there are massive multi-species bird die-offs occurring and the federal government has responded to unexplained seal die offs with two separate Unusual Mortality Event investigations between 2011 and as recent as 2019. Among all this, Safety Sound and the Bonanza Channel are a refuge for those animals and people alike, and its value needs to be understood in the context of ecological stressors that are hammering the region.
The technology used to conduct the meeting proved troublesome as the audio was at times so poor that people’s testimony was distorted by an echo, or some people were plain not able to connect via the computer/phone format of the hearing. Questions and comments were also submitted via chat. Many commented in the chat box of their use of the area for subsistence reasons but also for recreation, bird watching or enjoyment of life at fish camp and to instill traditional values. Concerns were also raised that the man camp, which is proposed right next to the historic Iditarod Trail and near the infamous blowhole, would case massive snow drifts and make winter travel on the trail difficult.
Charlie Lean spoke for the Northern Norton Sound Fish and Game Advisory committee and wanted to be on the record expressing concern about juvenile salmon habitat, migratory bird habitat and hunting and fishing opportunities. “A mining project with questionable probability of success is a risk beyond reason,” he stated.
The Corps’ deadline for comment was Sept. 30. The officials said they will evaluate the comments before making a decision on the project.


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