Dunleavy Wants to Fast Track Graphite One Mine Permit

By Hal Shepherd

Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy is attempting to fast-track the proposed Graphite One mining project in the remote Kigluaik Mountain range north of Nome, as a high-priority infrastructure project. Dunleavy is proposing the mine be included under new legislation intended to shorten the permitting process for transportation projects. Title 41 of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, (Fast-41), adopted by Congress during the Obama administration, was intended to be a surface transportation reauthorization focusing on highway, transit, and rail programs. The Act establishes a new Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council (FPISC), authorized to stream line the NEPA process, including the elimination of public review and comment.

As part of the political pressure the mining industry and sympathetic political leaders have been applying in the last couple of years, the FPISC recently proposed to add mining as a sector with infrastructure projects eligible for coverage under FAST-41. The act currently includes renewable and conventional energy production, electricity transmission, surface transportation, aviation, ports and waterways, water resource projects, broadband, pipelines, and manufacturing. 

While it does not predetermine the outcome of any Federal decision-making process, FAST-41 coverage, it almost ensures that the granting of the permit through fast-tracking transparency of the environmental analysis and authorization processes for covered projects. Even if mining is added as a FAST-41, individual projects like Graphite One still have to apply for coverage and meet eligibility requirements, hence Dunleavy’s nomination. According to the mining Magazine, Critical Minerals Alaska, “Mining projects that supply the materials needed for the energy, communication, and transportation infrastructure in the U.S. may be eligible for Fast-410, thanks in large part to Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s nomination of two proposed critical mineral mines in Alaska – Bokan Mountain rare earth element project near Ketchikan and Graphite Creek project north of Nome – as high-priority infrastructure projects.” 

Similarly, Dunleavey submitted a nomination letter for Graphite One under a Trump Administration directive to fast-track infrastructure projects. According to the CMA 2020, “Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy nominated Graphite Creek as a as high-priority infrastructure project under Executive Order 13766, a directive by President Trump to strengthen the U.S. economy by expediting the permitting of infrastructure projects.” 

EO 13766 requires federal agencies to establish expedited procedures and deadlines for designated “infrastructure projects…in a manner consistent with law.”  By calling the mine a “high priority infrastructure project”, the Governor is increasing political pressure to add mining to it can be fast tracked under the Executive Order. Also, because the process for inclusion of a sector under the EO is far less detailed than FAST-41 and requires no public notice and comment, it is a much better bet for Alaska’s mining sympathetic government.

            The Imuruk Basin, a biologically productive system, is the lifeblood of The Native Villages of Teller, Brevig Mission and Mary’s Igloo (Villages) who rely on the shallow salmon-bearing streams that drain the Graphite One mine sight. Many of the residents of these communities are concerned that the Mine’s use of water for exploration and ultimately to process the ore would negatively impact fish and wildlife resources they rely on for subsistence purposes. 

Because mining activity uses water from rivers and streams, as streams begin to heat up in the Bering Sea area due to climate change, any reduction in flows could cause significant rises in temperature, impacting returning salmon attempting to spawn. In 2015 the Villages requested that both the Alaska Department of Natural Resources and Fish and Game decline Graphite One’s request to withdraw up to 130,000-acre feet per day of water for exploration purposes from six creeks that drain the mining site. Both requests were refused, in part, because the agencies had not conducted sufficient analysis or did not, otherwise have sufficient information to determine whether the water diversions would affect salmon. The last chance for the state to collect and analyze such data and information would be the full mine permitting process. This would be unlikely if the Graphite One mine is included in Fast-41 or the EO thereby, qualifying for permitting fast tracking as the state is proposing.