Rivers of Gold: No permits issued yet
When the first barges arrived in Nome last week, they carried tons of equipment and travel trailers destined for novice gold mining venture named IPOP.
IPOP LLC entertains dreams of mining gold in Safety Sound and the Bonanza Channel, and of creating a reality TV show about it under the name Rivers of Gold.
At press time, the equipment is parked at the upper port pad and, according to the permitting agencies, this is where it will remain for quite some time.
“This isn’t moving very fast, nothing is permitted and nothing will be in time for this year’s mining season,” said Charlene Bringhurst the project manager for the Dept. of Natural Resources, a state agency that works in concert with other state and federal agencies to permit mining projects. Not only have no permits been issued to allow either mining, filming or camping activities on state land, but the state Dept. of Environmental Conservation and the federal Army Corps of Engineers have upped the ante in terms of requirements for even coming close to any permitting decisions.
In response to IPOP’s general Application to Mine in Alaska submitted in March, APMA for short, the DEC last week advised the company that the proposed project is not eligible for an Alaska Pollutant Discharge Elimination System general permit.
This permit is needed to discharge tailings into a body of water. “Due to the scale of the proposed operation and sensitive habitat within the proposed discharge area including migration routes for five species of pacific salmon, the Department has determined that the discharge is ineligible for coverage under an APDES general permit,” the letter says. The letter continues to advise the company that it must apply for a so-called APDES individual permit, which sets higher bars to clear in order to be granted, and also it must be submitted 180 days prior to the discharges to begin.
“Until coverage under an APDES permit is obtained, discharge of wastewater from the dredge to any water of the U.S. is not authorized,” the DEC warns in bold letters.
In comparison, all existing gold dredges in Nome, even the bigger ones, operate under a general APDES permit.
DEC Placer Mine Coordinator Nick Dallman told the Nome Nugget that regulations become very specific and detailed when projects propose to mine in anadromous streams or bodies of water. “We felt it was beyond the scale what we could cover under general permit,” Dallman said.
The DEC also requires the project to apply for a mixing zone permit, as the proposed dredge operation doesn’t meet the state’s water quality standard at the discharge point, which is right behind the barge as the tailings are deposited into the water.
Also, the Army Corps of Engineers, a federal agency that works in cooperation with state agencies, issued a similar letter to IPOP’s Edwin A. Epstein Jr. In their letter, ACOE project manager Leslie Tose advises Epstein that the project as proposed will need a Department of the Army Individual Permit, which also requires significantly more documentation, and preparation work than a general permit. Tose told the Nugget that the operation needs potentially three permits. For starters, one permit would potentially be needed to fill wetlands with gravel to create a pad at an already staked area at mile 28 of the Nome-Council Road to the Safety Sound water’s edge approximately 200 yards away.
Another permit, Tose explained, would be needed to begin exploratory work, which has not been done although IPOP principal David Sao Marcos in a recent Rivers of Gold promotional video told viewers, “We will get to Nome in 2018, we will produce gold and we know what we are doing.” Usually, mining and exploration companies undergo several seasons of fieldwork to abide by regulations and also to find out if and how much of the desired resource is there. In this case, it does not appear that IPOP has done any work in preparation. The ACOE, in rare pre-emptive letter, advised Epstein that they need to go back to the drawing board and apply for a Nationwide Permit #6 for Survey Activities, basically a permit to begin exploration work, which also requires coordination with state, federal, local and tribal governments. Due to the sensitive area of Safety Sound and Bonanza, the ACOE requires an Individual Dept. of Army permit. The Individual Permit requires detailed information, sketches and plans that would be used for public notices, it would require clear and concise statements of the purpose and the need of the project, a list of adjacent property owners for public notice distribution, tribes that are affected, mitigation statements that spell out avoidance, minimization, research of how the project impacts special aquatic sites, endangered species and historic properties. The letter touches on the mystery of why Safety Sound of all places was selected for a huge dredging operation. “Components of your proposed project have been portrayed in randomly available online videos and include activities such as a reality TV show, a mercury or lead remediation program and manufacture of gold jewelry,” the letter reads. “These components are considered non-water dependent and do not have to be located in a water of the US to achieve the basic project purpose of gold mining with a cutter head dredge. […]Please provide a discussion of alternative sites and why Safety Sound was selected for your project.”
DEC as well as officials with the Army Corps of Engineers told the Nome Nugget that red flags went up once the permitting agencies learned about the location of the proposed mining operation: Safety and Bonanza Channels. The channels are estuaries and bodies of water fed by the Flambeau, El Dorado, Bonanza and Solomon Rivers. They are nurseries to two species of endangered seals in the spring and a paradise for migratory birds that make their home there in the summer. According to Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game area manager Jim Menard, the channels see annual migrations of all five salmon species, Dolly Varden, whitefish and tom cod.
Although it is frequented by fish, the channels were not listed as an anadromous water body. “That will likely change next year,” said Menard. ADF&G has concerns about the effects of the proposed operation on outmigrating fry and smolt and returning adults and resident species as well as habitat changes to the grasses.
The area is dotted with subsistence camps where people harvest fish, seals, berries, and tundra greens for subsistence. The land is a mosaic of Native allotments, Sitnasuak Native Corporation land up to mile 18 of the Nome-Council Highway, state land and Solomon Native Corporation lands. Kawerak Inc., Bering Straits Native Corporation and NSEDC have issued a statement in opposition to the project. According to Sitnasuak Native Corp. Chairman Bobby Evans, the SNC board is aware of the project and will discuss it at an upcoming board meeting before taking a stance on the project.
Solomon Native Corporation President Liz Johnson said the corporation is opposed to the project and has begun to post No Trespassing signs at Solomon Native Corporation land as there have been already numerous reports of trespassing incidents by film crews associated with Rivers of Gold.
The Governor of Alaska, the Alaska Congressional Delegation as well as state representatives Donnie Olson and Neal Foster have been notified of the project.
In order to find out what the nature of the IPOP operation is, Blake Bogart, a mining advocate in Nome, invited IPOP representatives to Nome. Bogart said three IPOP representatives indeed traveled to Nome in April to meet with him and other Nome miners. The main takeaway from the meeting, Bogart said, was that the Nome mining community was relieved to hear that their main concerns would be addressed by the stringent process of an Individual Permit rather than a general permit.
A combination of elusive project owners who have not contacted any local entity, promotional videos that announced the arrival of the massive sized dredge as the biggest that the Seward Peninsula has ever seen and the appearance of the gold mining equipment last week sent shockwaves through the community that regards Nuuk, Safety Sound and Solomon as sacrosanct and a bread basket of subsistence foods.
Repeated attempts to reach Ed Epstein for comment remained unsuccessful.
The best clues to what is proposed were submitted in the APMA and in the information put forth in the promotional videos.
In the latest video posted on YouTube on May 20 under US Aerial Services, River of Gold principal David Sao Marcos narrates a four-minute promotion on the gold potential, curiously speaking in terms of grams of gold per ton when placer mining Alaskans typically use measures of ounces/yard grade. To drone footage of Safety Sound and the Port of Nome, Sao Marcos speaks of the potential to strike it big in gold mining here, “If you look at this thing and you think $100 million, its probably $200 million because people lie, they’re not gonna tell you the truth. When the US Geological Survey asks you how much you have, you’re not completely honest with them, you could put gold in your pocket.”
In a different part of the video, Sao Marcos characterizes this region as lawless. “You got the wildlife, you got the musk ox, bears, you got people there, it’s kind of like, it’s the Wild West up there, so…”
Despite these assertions, this is not the Wild West.
ACOE project manager Leslie Tose included in her letter a clear warning of what will happen if IPOP goes ahead and fills wetlands with gravel or puts the dredge in water and discharges fill into US wetlands or waters. “There can be substantial penalties for conducting unauthorized work in waters of the US including wetlands,” she wrote. Violations of the Rivers and Harbors Act range between $500 and $2,500 per day or jail for up to one year. Violations of the Clean Water Act could be up to $53,484 per day and/or jail for up to three years. Since IPOP has been put on notice by the federal and state agencies, any contractors who disregard the agencies orders can be held responsible and could be subject to fines, too.
If violations are observed, email email@example.com. For water discharge violations contact the DEC compliance program at 907-269-7550.