Permitting agencies update Nome on IPOP proposal
The 2018 mining season has come and is almost over without the aspiring mining outfit known as IPOP LLC having secured the necessary exploration, let alone mining, permits that would allow them to go forward with their plans to mine for gold at Safety and Bonanza channels.
The only exploration permit that has been issued so far is a Fish Habitat permit by the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game.
IPOP’s amended Alaska Placer Mining Application, APMA for short, included their plan to drill 13 2.25-inch boreholes to a depth of 30 feet and operating a six-inch suction dredge in the channel between Safety Sound and Bonanza River. The exploration is proposed on three claims that IPOP staked east of the Bonanza Bridge. The ADF&G permit prohibits to construct or maintain dams, diversions or any other structure that may impede the passage of fish.
During a meeting at Old St. Joe’s last Thursday, Sept. 20, representatives from the state Dept. of Natural Resources, Dept. of Environmental Conservation and the federal Army Corps of Engineers briefed an interested crowd of Nome residents on the status of permitting activity regarding IPOP. The owner of the project, Edwin Epstein who applied for the APMA under a Nevada address, has not been to Nome nor have any IPOP officials been addressing the public here.
In a previous meeting in June, agency representatives attended and also mining consultants hired by IPOP, but nobody from IPOP itself has been present to answer questions to the public. IPOP has retained the services of Nome miner Mitch Erickson to act as a liaison to Nome and its residents. “Essentially I was asked, I’m a certified Mine Safety Trainer and that’s how I got involved, and then it was suggested to find somebody here to assist and be a local liaison to the community and whatever concerns they have that I would take to the company and permitting agencies,” Erickson said. Asked what he could reveal to Nomeites about the company as they have been somewhat of an enigma, Erickson responded that he’s mostly talking with the permitting agencies. The reporter clarified that it is of interested what the background of the company is, Erickson said, “I have to ask first, because I signed a confidentiality agreement.”
Charlene Bringhurst with the DNR mining section in Fairbanks explained that with the exception of the ADF&G permit no permit from other agencies have been issued to permit the exploration. Bringhurst said that the APMA requires multi-agency permitting and that she distributes the information to other state and federal agencies for reviews.
She said the proposed exploration drilling program has four components: to find the presence or absence, location and depth of the gold resource; to collect soil samples and finding presence or absence of potential contaminants; to conduct an eel grass survey and bathymetric survey and testing water turbidity by using a six-inch suction dredge.
“What makes this application unique is the area, the level of complexity and the subsistence and public uses of the area,” she said.
Next up to explain the DEC’s portion of the puzzle, Allan Nakanishi began his presentation stating the DEC’s mission to “ to conserve, improve and protect Alaska’s natural resources and environment to enhance the health, safety, economic and social well-being of Alaskans.”
Nakanishi explained that he is in charge of issuing the so-called APDES permit, a permit that allows discharges into state waters. “Turbidity and solids suspended in the water column are the main concerns in placer mining,” he said. Most dredges operating out in the ocean in front of Nome are operating under the so-called Norton Sound General Permit, he explained. He also clarified that the department is neither a proponent nor an opponent of any project. “If an application meets all regulatory requirements we must issue a permit,” he said.
Nick Dallman, also with DEC, explained that the limits of exploration permit: The allowable mixing zone is 100 feet and cannot take up more than 10 percent of the channel width. Most likely the permit would also include seasonal restrictions to consider fish passage, spawning and habitat.
Leslie Tose, project manager with the Army Corps of Engineers, said that the ACOE’s mission is to “support reasonable development while providing environmental protection.” The ACOE’s authority lies with the Clean Water Act, section 404. She said IPOP needs three nationwide permits for survey activities, for minor discharges and minor dredging. These permits have built-in limits and conditions and are limited to an area of 0.5 acres and 300 feet across. A regional condition B exists for the area being an anadromous waterbody. This allows tribes to request a tribal coordination with the Army Corps. Tose said they already consulted prior to the meeting with the regional non-profit Kawerak.
The floor then opened up to comments and there was not one person who spoke in favor of the project. Clyde Miles, himself a miner, commented that even the slightest disturbance of the river bottom there would create a cesspool-like mess. Larry Pederson couldn’t understand that IPOP did not even know to apply for exploration permits and remarked that the outfit shipped already millions worth of equipment to Nome. “Yes, they did put the cart before the horse,” DNR’s Charlene Bringhurst said. Tose also explained that the Army Corps recognized IPOP was not ready. “We sent them a letter telling them that they were in no way ready to apply for a mining permit,” she said. Allan Nakanishi also offered, that one would assume that “a company proposing an operation of that size would have an understanding of what is required.”
Roy Ashenfelter wanted to know more specifics about the baseline study. “What do they study? Birds? Marine mammals? Fish? We know it’s all there. Why is the owner of the project not here?”
Mitch Erickson answered that: The owner has cancer and cannot travel.
Scott Kent wanted to know how the agencies plan on enforcing their restrictions if they permit exploration. “We as agencies have discussed to bring in a third party observer to keep IPOP honest,” Bringhurst said.
Chuck Fagerstrom wanted to know why in the face of the overwhelming evidence of the place being a sensitive natural habitat to so many species of birds, mammals and fish, the agencies even consider these exploration permits. They have to. Bringhurst explained, “As agencies we have to develop a legally defensible denial if we don’t issue permits.”
Anne Davis offered what she has seen when she and her husband went there a few days prior. “We saw nine seals, salmon, tom cods, birds gathering, there is the best berry picking there. I would hate to see all this ruined,” she said.
Miner Clyde Miles asked a question that may not find answers in the books of laws and regulations that the agencies have to adhere to but that is central to the hearts of those loving the area. “Is there any value given to the beauty and the rarity of that place?” he asked.
The representatives reiterated that no agency has made any decisions to permit this project. And the Army Corps’ Leslie Tose stated, “There is no project yet.”
IPOP LLC had planned to put a 36-inch cutter head dredge in the water of Bonanza Channel at Safety and in waters near Solomon this summer, although they have not completed any exploration work which is usually done before any mining takes place. In concert, state and federal regulators warned IPOP representatives that no mining can start unless the proper permits are issued.
IPOP’s plans caused an uproar in Nome and drew the opposition by Native corporations BSNC, Kawerak and Solomon as well as NSEDC, as IPOP proposes to mine in the ecologically sensitive area of Safety Sound and its inland channels that are habitat to several salmon species, a nursery for ice seals and an estuary for myriads of migrating birds.