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Consultations Begin Between Elim and BLM Over Boulder Creek Uranium Property

Robert Keith, left, sits near Paul Nagaruk as they participate in government-to-government consultations with the Bureau of Land Management. Ben Townsend photo.

Huddled in the Elim IRA Council Office about twenty people sat in assorted chairs. A TV glowed at the front of the room as photos of residents and their elders pinned to the walls looked on. The weight of generations of Elim people, a combination of Inupiaq and Yup’ik peoples, lingered over the group as they settled in for an afternoon meeting. 

As is tradition they began the meeting with a prayer, this time led by Elim IRA Council President, Robert Keith.

“We pray for a hedge of protection around our lands that we depend on and oceans that we depend on,” Keith said.

Keith thoughtfully chose his words as he led the prayer. The coastal village, located on the south side of the Seward Peninsula, relies on their land and waters for subsistence foods. As they face another threat to their subsistence way of life and economy, they’ve summoned the BLM for government-to-government consultations regarding Panther Mineral’s Boulder Creek exploration program. 

The program seeks to confirm uranium deposits at nearby Boulder Creek and Fireweed properties. Historical estimates suggest the presence of one million pounds of uranium, although the Canadian mining company hopes to find much more. 

Emily Murray presents a powerpoint to representatives from the Bureau of Land Management. Ben Townsend photo.

It’s all a bit shocking, given that residents like Wayne Moses learned about the program just two months before.

“We found out about the exploration mining through KNOM, through Facebook, and none of us were notified in any of our entities. I wonder why is that?” Moses asked of the panel of BLM officials. 

Tom Sparks, an Associate Field Manager based in Nome, explained to the group that at this point the BLM’s role is simply to ensure that the Notice of Operations submitted by Panther Minerals meets regulatory requirements.

“When we do outreach on a lot of these it’s not at the notice level, it’s at the plan level, because there isn’t a decision for BLM to make,” Sparks explained. “So we don’t have any authority on whether or not we permit the exploration because on a notice level, they’re allowed to do that work.”

Making matters more complicated, the project sits on both federal and state land. 11 mining claims are under the jurisdiction of the BLM while 18 claims fall under the Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Future efforts will also likely involve the Environmental Protection Agency and Alaska Department of Fish & Game.

Worried About Water

Elim’s main concern is the Tubutulik River. The waterway is home to a variety of Pacific salmon that the village relies on for subsistence.

Headwaters for the Tubutulik River begin in an area known as Death Valley. Panther Minerals plans to conduct drilling at both ends of this valley, at Boulder Creek to the south and Fireweed in the north.

Elim resident Emily Murray led a presentation at the start of the meeting to explain how critical the waters are.

Murray was worried about how the exploration program and subsequent developments may cause irreparable damage to the environment.

“One of our concerns is what environmental impacts will occur if the holes are drilled in wetlands or artesian areas, and what environmental impacts will occur if there are dangerous ailments in the soil and drilling waste left behind in the tundra,” Murray said.

Murray also serves as vice president of the Norton Bay Watershed Council. Earlier this month the organization distributed a press release noting that the establishment of a uranium mining district “could impact salmon spawning and rearing areas and impede the recovery efforts conducted by the local community, as well as exacerbate declines in fish and wildlife populations due to impacts from climate change.”

Between personnel and drilling, the operation will require a notable amount of water. An Application for Permits to Mine (APMA) submitted to the DNR outlines plans to install five water pumps and dig sumps throughout Death Valley to support their efforts. 

According to the APMA they plan to drill 50 holes this summer. The drill is expected to consume as much as 18,000 gallons of water per 24 hours. That amount of water is like running a shower constantly for five days straight.

A 12 person camp for geologists, drillers, a cook, and a pilot will also be built to support their program. The camp will be built on a site first used in the 1980s when Houston Oil & Minerals explored the area. A water pump for the camp is estimated to consume about 900 gallons per 24 hours.

Panther Minerals does not plan on returning the water back to the Tubutulik river, instead relying on hand dug sumps lined with heavy duty plastics to prevent water from entering the water table below or running off into the tundra. Minerals and other byproducts will settle to the bottom of the sump while the water above evaporates away.

Hal Shepherd has served as a consultant for Elim, both in 2015 when he helped conduct water testing on the Tubutulik and in 2024 as the village navigates the latest development in their region. Shepherd has his concerns over this method of storing wastewater. 

“Anything that comes out of the sump is going to go in the groundwater, which is going to go in the creek. There might be some filtering going on but then again, this is uranium, right?” Shepherd said.

Salmon hang from drying racks at Moses Point near Elim. Ben Townsend photo.

Profit or a Price to Pay?

Panther Minerals, whose offices are located above an Aston Martin and Bentley car dealership in Vancouver, British Columbia, will use the results of this summer’s exploration program to weigh how profitable such an operation may be. Uranium is currently trading at $86 per pound, valuing the one million pound deposit at $86 million.

According to mining claim owner and Panther Minerals consultant David Hedderly-Smith, they would need to find much more uranium for it to make business-sense. 

“$90 million doesn’t go very far when you’re developing a deposit out in the middle of nowhere,” Hedderly-Smith said. “The reserves probably got to be increased 100 fold, certainly 30 or 40 fold.”

Any mining in the region would take many years and require countless permits along the way. If mining were to move forward, it could create a large number of jobs for residents of Elim and the Seward Peninsula. 

Graphite One is developing a mine north of Nome to extract graphite. The critical mineral is used in batteries and other electronics. Like uranium, graphite is primarily sourced outside of the U.S. 

Their operations have been the subject of national security interest as the federal government looks to divest from China and Russia. The U.S. Department of Defense recently increased their investment in Graphite One to reimburse up to $37.3 million in expenses for the completion of a feasibility study. Once operational, the graphite mine is expected to employ up to 170 people.

For Murray, no number of jobs or amount of money would be worth giving up the village’s subsistence way of life. 

“Our subsistence economy is very important to our region and to any tribe in the state of Alaska. We fight to keep our rivers clean, to keep our salmon coming back because that’s what puts food on the table,” Murray said. “If they opened that mine, you’re taking away the richness of our subsistence economy. How are we going to feed ourselves? How are we going to maintain our livelihood?”

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