Lead from the Faro mine is present throughout the region’s food chain, from caribou to ptarmigan to lichen.
The heavy metal’s presence is found throughout a massive contamination zone that runs northwest along Tintina Trench all the way to Pelly Crossing.
But while a study has determined First Nation hunters aren’t at risk by eating animals and plants harvested from the area, several Ross River Dena Council citizens remain unconvinced.
They cite a lack of answers from officials at the Faro mine closure office as the source of their worries.
“We’ve put out all kinds of questions but we’ve gotten no straight answers back,” said Norman Sterriah, a traditional knowledge expert with the Ross River Dena Council.
“We want to go back down and start using that area. My grandfather was from that area. Our elders have been saying, ‘When is it safe to start going back down there and start using that area more extensively?’” said Sterriah.
“We rely a great deal on subsistence hunting. We want to find some answers.”
The land near the Faro tailings pond is called the “breadbasket” because it is rich with animals and plants, said Sterriah.
The Faro lead-zinc mine was last owned by Anvil Range Mining and closed in 1998.
Anvil Range left behind 70 million tonnes of lead-bearing tailings in a pond in the Rose Creek Valley that the federal government must clean up.
Costs have been estimated at more than $100 million.
Because of the mine, community members have long been concerned about exposing themselves to lead through eating animals and plants from the area, said Sterriah.
But a study commissioned by Deloitte & Touche, which now oversees the mine, has concluded that First Nation hunters can rest easy.
“(N)o adverse health effects are expected in fish and animals that are currently present on the site,” reads a summary of a risk-assessment report by Ontario-based SENES Consultants.
“The human health assessment indicated that humans who use the site for approximately 1.5 months of the year to gather berries and trap animals and who hunt animals on the site and eat them year round are not at risk from adverse health effects.”
Meetings were held last fall in Ross River, Faro and Pelly Crossing to relay the results.
The SENES findings are based on an environmental study by Gartner-Lee Ltd.
Unlike the risk assessment’s reassurances of safety, however, some of the Gartner-Lee study’s findings are chilling.
Lichen with lead contamination of more than 747 parts-per-million was found one-kilometre from the tailings pond.
The levels are “comparable to some of the highest concentrations reported in the world for vegetation growing adjacent to mining and metal-processing facilities,” reads the report.
Lead is also being spread from the site through the air, it found.
Samples show three times the normal amount of environmental lead levels over a 769-square-kilometre area around the mine site.
Tests using moss bags that absorb material found lead from the Faro mine about 180 kilometres to the northwest in Pelly Crossing.
The study also sampled tissues from 10 animal species in the area that First Nations eat or that form part of the food chain.
Beaver were found with lead levels about four times higher than normal; ptarmigan were found with more than 18 times the regular amount of lead in their bodies.
Along with lead, elevated levels of arsenic (which can cause cancer), antimony, barium, boron, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, iron, lead, mercury, molybdenum, nickel, selenium, silver, thallium, titanium, vanadium and zinc were also found in the 2,500-square-kilometre area tested.
But while the study’s results are disturbing, they must be read in context, said Stephen Mead, project manager for the Yukon government on the Faro mine closure project.
“You work up all the way up the food chain and come up with a risk assessment to a human conducting traditional pursuits on the land,” said Mead from Vancouver.
“It’s pretty tricky to understand in complete context. It’s very easy to open one page and read one part of it, but it’s very difficult to get the whole picture.”
The SENES report took all the scientific information and concluded that eating wild animals doesn’t pose any risk to humans, said Mead.
While those conclusions were explained during community meetings, settling people’s natural skepticism is the difficult part, he said.
“I think we do see elements of that occasionally, and I think it’s healthy skepticism — it’s people who live there and see changes and don’t necessarily think that anybody else will have any more of an understanding,” he said.
Mead’s assurances are echoed by biologist Mary Gamberg, who tests wild meat for the Yukon Contaminants Committee.
“There is no evidence to show that lead is higher in moose in the Ross River area than it is anywhere else in the territory,” said Gamberg.
She receives annual moose and caribou samples from hunters.
There have been very few donated from the Ross River area — with the newest testing data based on meat collected between 1994 and 1997.
Lead levels in that meat ranged between 0.04 to 1.26 micrograms per gram dry weight, well below safe limits, said Gamberg.
But despite the age of the tests, Gamberg doesn’t believe lead levels have increased.
“Faro has been there for a long time, so we don’t have any reason to believe it would have increased over the last decade,” she said.
Gamberg also tested moose and caribou meat during the Gartner-Lee study.
Those results showed moose in the area don’t have more lead in their bodies than those elsewhere in the Yukon, she said.
Caribou were found with elevated lead levels in their livers and kidneys — at about 0.25 milligrams, said Gamberg.
But, again, that isn’t a worry, she said.
The World Health Organization advises people to limit lead intake to three milligrams per week.
Doing the math, someone would have to eat more than 12 kidneys per week to exceed that limit.
The meat in the wilds near Faro is a lot less contaminated than other meat widely consumed, added Pat Roach, chair of Northern Contaminants Program.
“The lead levels are probably better than most beef you’d buy in a store,” said Roach.
Still, people in Ross River have unanswered questions, said Sterriah.
“The Faro mine people should at least try to provide us comfort that they’re listening to us,” he said.