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Barrick Gold Corp. ABX-T is facing pushback from Indigenous stakeholders in Alaska who are concerned about the environmental damage the massive Donlin gold mine could cause if it gets the go ahead.

Toronto-based Barrick, the world’s second biggest gold producer, held its annual shareholder meeting on Wednesday and two of the three questions asked by stakeholders revolved around Donlin’s potentially negative impact on the ecosystem.

Barrick co-owns the Donlin project in southwestern Alaska alongside junior development company Novagold Resources Inc. Donlin is one of the biggest undeveloped gold deposits in the world, with estimated annual production of 1.3 million ounces over a 25-year mine life.

Beverly Hoffman, Orutsararmiut Tribal Citizen, said in a statement that there is significant opposition to the proposed development, owing to concerns that Donlin will contaminate the Kuskokwim River and decimate the salmon population, which the locals depend on for subsistence.

“Your company has committed to respect the history, culture and traditional ways of Indigenous peoples, their standing as distinct self-determining peoples with collective rights and their interests in land, waters and their environment. If this is your policy, why are you pushing the development of the Dunlin open pit mine?” Ms. Hoffman said during the annual meeting. She also pushed the company to respond in writing.

Mark Bristow, chief executive officer of Barrick, said he would follow up with a written response to Ms. Hoffman. He also fielded a question from Sophie Swope, a resident of the city of Bethel, whose residents similarly depend on the Kuskokwim River.

“This is a very fertile and sponge-like land of tundra, which is one that will soak up everything we leave behind,“ Ms. Swope said. “Is there any chance we will be able to continuously subsist on the salmon smelt and river water without facing any environmental health issues?”

In response, Mr. Bristow said that Barrick is committed to managing the environmental impact of Donlin: “Have no doubt that you will be able to continue your traditional activities, including fishing for salmon, once we make the decision and develop the mine.”

Barrick will continue to engage with Indigenous groups in Alaska, Mr. Bristow said, adding that a trip is planned in November to meet with local stakeholders.

The potential development of Donlin is being discussed not long after another Canadian mining company with plans for a major new mine in Alaska suffered a serious setback. In 2020, the Donald Trump administration refused to grant Vancouver-based Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd. a federal mining permit to build the Pebble copper gold mine. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) concluded that its proposed project in the Bristol Bay region of southwestern Alaska posed too big of a threat to the aquatic ecosystem, including the sockeye salmon population.

However, unlike Pebble, the Donlin project received federal permits from the USACE in 2018, making it more likely to go ahead. A bigger potential roadblock for both Barrick and Novagold in moving forward is the astronomical price tag. The capital costs of Donlin were last estimated at US$9.1-billion, close to double those of Pebble. Remoteness, the relatively low-grade nature of gold in the ground, and a lack of infrastructure are some of the reasons why the costs are so high. Barrick hasn’t yet decided whether it will build Donlin, and it is a few years out before even having to make that decision, with extensive drilling and engineering work still to be carried out.

Barrick already has a major new mine project in its near-term pipeline, which analysts have said potentially makes it less likely to pull the trigger on Donlin any time soon. Last month the Toronto miner said it is planning on reviving the stalled Reko Diq copper gold mine in southwestern Pakistan. That project has a estimated cost of US$7-billion, with Barrick contributing 50 per cent and Pakistan the rest.

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