Venetie environmental conference addresses emerging issues at Chandalar
In early April, the Council of Athabascan Tribal Governments, in association with the Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government, Venetie Village Council, and Arctic Village Council held the Venetie Environmental and Natural Resources Conference. The conference was a part of the Gwinzii Gwarandaii (Living Good) Initiative; the primary purpose of the conference was to establish priorities to protect the health of traditional lands, waters, and resources which provide the villages’ livelihood. Discussion focused on the environmental risks of increased mining activity in the Chandalar watershed.
The Chandalar River is identified by USFWS as the largest fall chum fishery in the Yukon River drainage, documented by a fall chum sonar site in operation since 1995, producing nearly 1/3 of the overall documented Yukon River stock. Additionally, local knowledge from residents of the village of Venetie identifies the river as important Chinook salmon habitat. Recent village observations report increased quality and quantity of Chinook stocks in the river.
During the well-attended four day conference, village leaders, tribal partners, USFWS staff, and environmental experts provided information related to water resources and activities of Goldrich Mining Company near Chandalar Lake, and Thazzik Mountain, near the Venetie Indian Reservation. Goldrich is currently conducting exploratory drilling in hopes of identifying a large-scale, economically viable gold deposit, and has signed an $8.5 million joint venture agreement with NyacAU, LLC.
As the first community downriver of Chandalar Lake, Venetie depends on clean water from the Chandalar River. “The river is our Lifeblood,” said Eddie Frank of the Venetie Village Council. “It has supported a productive fishery for as long as we’ve been here, and we can still drink right from the river. We want to keep it that way.”
Pete Dronkers, Clean Water and Mining Program Director with the Northern Alaska Environmental Center, provided an overview of Goldrich and its plans and presented case studies of mines that have severely impacted fisheries in the US and Canada. “Some mines don’t carry high risks for metals leaching, but some do,” Dronkers said. “It’s important for folks to realize that many mines pollute waters long after they close, requiring water treatment forever to prevent impacts to fish, and it doesn’t always work out as planned.”
Kendra Zamzow, Ph.D, of the Center for Science in Public Participation, hopes to take a closer look at the type of rock being drilled in the coming months. “Risk assessments for future mines are complicated, but we have reason to believe that acid drainage may be a problem for Goldrich, and spawning fish are extremely sensitive to that.”
Lance Whitwell, an environmental coordinator with the Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government, has studied the proposed road from the Dalton Highway at Coldfoot into Chandalar Lake. “A road like that would allow for district-wide industrial development where we hunt every year,” Whitwell said. “And it could also allow for people to launch boats into the river and hunt and fish in places they’ve never been before. All of that affects us.”
“The conference was a huge success and we’re already planning another one,” said organizer James Kelly of the Council for Athabascan Tribal Governments. We’re going to follow this issue very closely, and work with our colleagues to get the information we need to make good decisions to protect the most important thing to our people: clean water, healthy fisheries and wildlife, and intact landscapes.” The Tee Drin Jik Coalition was formed at the conclusion of the conference for the purposes of ‘Protecting the Chandalar River Watershed in the Yukon Flats.’
The conference was funded in part by: the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Communities Creating Healthy Environments Program; the Environmental Protection Agency; and the Venetie Village Council.
Northern Alaska Environmental Center
830 College Rd, Fairbanks AK 99701-1535
P (907) 452-5021 ext. 28 F (907) 452-3100