When Donlin Gold brings up barging, residents of the Kuskokwim bring up subsistence. As fish feed the people on the river, the barges would feed the proposed mining operation. To find a way for increased barge traffic to coexist with subsistence activities, Donlin laid out a plan for how communication between Kuskokwim River users and the operators of the large mining vessels would work.
“The operators absolutely understand that you have limited time to fill freezers or put up your fish to dry, and it’s not in our best interest to impede on that. That said, we still have a job to do," said Eric Nelius, who's leading the Donlin barging unit with the Calista Corporation’s Brice Marine subsidiary.
The question is how to effectively do the job of developing and operating the proposed mine during a short season when everybody wants to use the river at once. Estimates are that the mine would double the barge traffic on the Kuskokwim from its usual rate of 68 barges per year. This would be at the same time that residents are traveling the river and fishing. The barges would start after the ice leaves, run every day that there is enough water to float them, and then stop when the ice returns.
The key to sharing the river, Nelius says, would be communication, "making sure that we talk to the folks who are using the river, whether they’re fishing or traveling or whatever they’re doing, and that we can pass safely without any sort of a conflict.”
Donlin presented their plan for avoiding that conflict to about a dozen people from a handful of Kuskokwim villages on Monday. The company says that it would hold meetings in Bethel and Aniak before and after the barging season to discuss what was coming up and how to approach it. Another idea was to send skiffs in front of the barge tows to talk with fishermen ahead. Nelius gave an example of what that exchange could sound like:
“Hey, when do you plan on pulling the net? Well, we’re on the fish. We don’t want to pull our net. Well, then we either need to hold up or go maybe where there’s more water."
A Napaskiak resident requested that whoever they send in the skiffs be able to speak Yup’ik. He also suggested Donlin post the barge schedule to Facebook. The company says it’s looking to develop live GPS trackers for the barges, so people could consult the internet to find out when they are approaching. And there is still the same VHF radio communication that people have been using for decades.
According to Enric Fernandez, Donlin’s Environmental Coordinator, there will also be a process to resolve difficulties. People would be able to log complaints against the barges if conflicts arose.
“It’d be very similar to what you see nowadays with the aviation airlines industry," he said, "where a person can elevate their concern and then they would work to resolve it. And if it doesn’t get resolved, you would have the option to elevate it until you get a satisfactory resolution.”
Those attending the meeting agreed that Donlin’s plan would be helpful if the mine gets permitted and development begins. They asked that the barges not create large wakes where shorelines are already eroding. Residents also asked Donlin to remember the stakes and what the river means to the region.
Donlin says that barging and subsistence have co-existed for generations on the Kuskokwim and they’re confident that, even with twice the number of barges, the two can continue to exist.